He woke up slowly, groggily. Everything ached, especially his head. From the bouncing, jostling feeling of the surface he was laying on, he had to be in a cart or a wagon that was moving. Discord rubbed his eyes, and when that didn't enable him to see any better, tried switching his vision to batpony style so he could see in the dark.
Something around his neck shocked him, like when he'd slunk along the fuzzy carpet in the boutique where he'd stolen material for Little Sister and then touched the metal doorknob. Except worse, and it felt like it was tightening around his neck, like he couldn't breathe. The sensation passed, but his vision wasn't any better. It was still completely dark.
Discord tried looking at the properties of the world. That worked, and didn't hurt, but they were fuzzy, and when he tried to bring them into closer focus, or touch them, the shock and the tightening happened again. Exhausted and dispirited by the painful reactions, he lay, passively letting his eyes acclimate to the darkness while he peered around with his magic vision, being careful not to try to tightly focus on anything.
He was lying on a properties: once-alive, wooden, solid, stiff, rubbed with chemicals that closed all of the wood's pores and made it smoother. Around him was a properties: iron (magic resistant), cylindrical, thin, vertical, lots of them ranged around him in a rectangle, and above him another sheet of wood much like the one he was lying on. A cage, with bars. Weak point: one side of the cage had hinges and was not driven into the wood or welded to the bars of the corner sides, and there was some sort of mechanism holding it closed, and then a padlock looped through that mechanism. That was the door.
The cage was tied down to the wooden floor of a wagon. There were other living things in here in other cages. It was too dark to see with his eyes, but with his magic Discord was able to make out that one of them was a bear, one of them was a manticore, and there were several dogs and many, many rats, and beyond that point Discord could make out that there were more animals but not what they were.
As for himself, his injuries hadn't finished healing, and they should have. They were bandaged. With his teeth, Discord promptly ripped the bandages off, assuming that they were the reason his wounds hadn't healed yet. There was a thing around his neck – with his paws, he could make out that it was a collar, but his magical vision could barely see it as anything but a dim fuzzy cloud of obscured properties. He felt at it with his lion paw. Leather, but with a metal mesh on the inside, so it was really two strips of leather sewn together to enclose the metal. Probably iron, because it was messing up his magic. There were crystals spaced at regular intervals, set within the mesh. There was a buckle, and Discord fumbled at it for several minutes before coming to the conclusion that it was a sufficiently complicated lock that he'd actually need to pick it.
He tested the bars of his cage. Strong – too strong for him to bend without magic. By now he had figured out that it was the collar around his neck that was blocking him. Every time he tried to actively use magic, it shocked him and constricted. It did the same if he tried to pull it up or down, or tear at it. When he tried to use magic directly on the collar, figuring that he could endure the pain for a second or two if it let him shut the collar down, he found that magic simply drained into it and did nothing. So he'd definitely need to pick the lock. But right now, his talons were slightly numb, and fumbly, and he didn't have any tools anyway. This was probably more complicated than his talon alone could handle; he'd need a pin or a stiff wire.
The ponies who had captured him said they were going to sell him. Discord drew in on himself, shivering. Ponies didn't eat meat, or approve of those who did, from what he'd seen. He dimly remembered his mother telling him about the Way of Harmony, that the ponies followed and the draconequui had converted to, that forbade the eating of meat, and how if they didn't eat meat eventually the ponies would forgive them and share their lands with them. So probably whoever bought him wasn't going to want to eat him. And at some point – maybe it was the fight with the Cheddars, he was too groggy to remember – somepony had pointed out that his small body and mismatched limbs meant that his pelt would be worthless. So they probably didn't want to skin him either. But they thought he was an animal – the ponies who'd captured him had been very clear on that – so he wasn't being sold to be a galley slave on a ship or some such thing from stories he distantly recalled his mother reading him from books, when they'd been able to get books.
What did ponies use animals for? Well, chickens laid eggs. Discord couldn't lay eggs, at least not to the best of his knowledge. Girl draconequui could lay eggs, but he was a boy. Maybe they'd mixed him up with a girl? Or maybe it was something else they wanted him for. Pigs hunted truffles, disposed of garbage and provided security. Cats hunted rats and mice. Dogs protected their owners from larger animals and dangerous ponies. Was that what they wanted? Did they think Discord was like a dog or something, and they could train him to catch intruders, the way the dog back at the Quench farm had caught him?
If they wanted something like that from him, Discord had to laugh. There was no way he was going to do anything like that. If they tried to make him work on a farm, he'd just steal food and run away. As hard as he thought, Discord couldn't come up with anything that ponies might actually want him for that he wouldn't be able to easily get away from. He just had to wait until he felt better, and had more light, and then he could get this collar off, turn the wooden roof of his cage into paper, and just push through it. Or make it bread, and eat it first. He was too queasy to feel hungry right now, but part of his mind was always analyzing for opportunities to get food.
What he really wanted now was water, but he didn't have any, and if he had, it would probably have spilled all over with the way this wagon was shaking and bouncing. He tried squeezing his head through the bars, but they were too closely set. He tried picking the hinges of the cage door, but couldn't manage that any better than he'd done at picking the lock on his collar. He tried bending the door at the bottom or top, where it didn't actually fasten to the ceiling or the floor of his cage, to see if he could make enough clearance to squeeze through. The answer was no.
With nothing else he could do, Discord lay in his cage and daydreamed of what he'd do once he escaped.
At some point he must have drifted off to sleep, because the sudden stopping of the cart he was on, followed by loud banging noises and pony voices, woke him. Discord jumped to all fours – the cage wasn't big enough for him to stand on his hind legs – and peered out into the darkness. A bright, square light appeared, making Discord squint, and then the outline of a pony against the light. "Whew! That's rancid," the stallion said. "You guys'll be happy to get out of this stinky wagon, won't you. Not that the menagerie smells much better but at least there's some air for ya."
Discord had noticed the smell being very strong, but not bad. It just smelled like a lot of animals close together. Sure, there was the smell of urine and feces from multiple species, but Discord had never found such smells particularly offensive. The stallion started hauling cages out of the wagon, one or two at a time, by lifting the cages onto something rather like a wheelbarrow, except flat-bottomed, yoking himself to it on the far side, and wheeling it out of the wagon. When it was Discord's turn, his cage was large enough that he was taken by himself. The stallion pulled his cage, on the cart, out of the wagon and into bright sunlight.
Wooden planks had been hastily laid down on grass to create a makeshift flooring, which was covered with hay and animal detritus. Nearby, the grass turned into paved stone, wide, flat bricks more floor-like than road-like. There were brightly colored tents all around, including one very close by sitting on the paved stone. A different stallion, another earth pony, with a brown mane and a pink coat, took the cart. As the first stallion, gold-maned and blue-bodied in the light, yoked himself to a different empty flatbottomed cart and trotted up the wooden ramp into the back of the wagon, the second stallion pulled Discord into the nearby tent.
His nose wrinkled. This was not an improvement over the animal smell of the wagon. Ammonia, a smell that concentrated everything bad about the scent of urine and removed everything good, was everywhere. The paved stone floor shone wetly, but the ammonia smell was overpowering. There were animal cages on racks, and animal cages standing by themselves. Discord saw two lions, pacing in separate cages; a group of monkeys, chattering at each other; large, wild pigs snuffling at a trough in their cage; a bear; many birds... At some point he stopped cataloguing, and just looked around himself with wide eyes, taking it all in. There were a lot of animals here.
They pulled up in front of a larger cage, one that was big enough for Discord to stand in. The stallion unyoked himself, lifted Discord's cage, and set it down in front of the bigger cage. Then he yoked himself again and trotted off with the cart.
For a while nothing happened. Discord could see earth ponies carrying in cages and emptying them into larger cages, all over the menagerie, and he wondered why they weren't doing that for him. The large cage had a water trough in it, and he wanted water badly. Also, he wanted to be able to stand up. Also, the moment this cage opened, he had plans to bolt for it if there was any possibility of doing so successfully.
He heard various snippets of conversation from the pony workers. Apparently they had just arrived here the day before, themselves. The place they were appeared to be a town called Whitetail Junction, and they were supposed to be doing a show tonight. This was, in fact, a circus. Discord had heard of them, but never seen one before. The buildings were tents so they could be folded up and put on wagons after the circus was ready to leave; it traveled from town to town putting on performances, some of which involved animals.
Discord reached through the bars of the cage with his eagle talon and poked idly at the padlock. No, that was probably going to need a wire to pick, too. He hadn't had to pick locks since two winters ago; nowadays his magic was powerful enough that he could go through walls. Except, apparently, right now, with this collar on. Well. He'd gotten pretty good at it before he'd stopped needing to do it, so hopefully he'd still be able to.
A green unicorn mare with a purple mane trotted over to his cage. "What in the name of all the gods are you?" she asked in a cranky tone. "Oh, never mind. If you're trainable it looks like you could run through some really interesting routines, and if you're not, you'll be a great one for the freak show. Definitely more interesting looking than the two headed dog."
"I am not a freak!" Discord protested... and winced when he heard himself. It didn't sound like he was speaking pony, even though he was trying to. It sounded like he was making animal noises that roughly fit the pattern of what he was trying to say. He'd been far too long out of practice speaking to anyone but himself and Little Sister.
The unicorn took no notice of him. She used her telekinesis to open the large cage and levitate Discord's smaller cage into it. Then she undid the padlock on his small cage and swung the door open. Discord clenched his paws in frustration. There had been no opportunity to try to escape.
Well, if he couldn't escape, he could do the next best thing. Discord stretched and stood up. The mare was still watching him. "Huh. Bipedal. None of those mixed-up body parts look like a monkey's, but you've definitely got some monkey-like features."
She was talking about him as if he couldn't even understand her, as if he wasn't even there. And, he realized, as far as she knew, he couldn't. They thought he was an animal. Which meant, hopefully, that they wouldn't expect him to try to pick the locks. He glared at the unicorn, then ambled over to the water trough. There was of course no cup, but Discord had drunk water directly from streams and rivers often enough that it didn't bother him to just stick his muzzle in the water and lap.
"We're going to have to put you through your paces later, see just what you can do. I've never heard anything about how to train a draconequus," the mare said. Discord turned his head and glared at her again. Oh no. They were not going to "train" him. He was getting out of here, at the earliest possible opportunity.
As soon as she was gone, he explored his cage. It was large enough that he could even fly a little bit – no higher than a low tree branch would have been, but without being able to change gravity he couldn't fly much higher than that anyway. There was the water trough, and there was the smaller cage he'd been brought here in, and there was absolutely nothing else in the cage. It was built the same way the smaller one was – strong iron bars fastened into the wide planks of plywood that formed the ceiling and the floor. The side with the door wasn't all door the way the smaller cage was, but its construction was similar – hinges on one side, a padlock on the other holding it shut. He found no weaknesses, no give in any of the bars. This was going to require some thought.
It wasn't a good idea to try to escape now, in daylight, with so many ponies around. Discord paced in his cage, occasionally flying a bit. This was sooo boring. There was nothing to eat, nothing to play with, nothing to do but pace and watch the ponies unloading and securing more animals.
They hadn't taken the smaller cage he'd been transported in. Sometime around the twenty zillionth pace around his cage, Discord realized that the hinges, and more importantly the hinge pins, of the small cage were now accessible to him – they were on the outside of the cage, and now so was he. With some effort he rotated the cage, dragging it so that its open door was facing the back wall of the larger cage confining him. A bit of work with teeth and talon, and he had a hinge pin. He didn't think it would be slim enough to do the lockpicking he needed, but it might give him the leverage he needed to pry apart and disassemble the hinges of his larger cage. He couldn't risk losing it, so he plucked enough fur from his thick middle coat to twist into a kind of string, and then he tied the metal bar to the shaft of one of the primaries on his pegasus wing. The operation was awkward – even for him, it was hard to bend his arms and wing in such a way that he could use both paws to tie something to a feather – but he got it done. Nopony paid attention; they were still moving animals around.
Eventually the unicorn mare returned with an earth stallion. This one was white with an orange mane. "Funny looking thing," the stallion said. "What does he eat?"
The unicorn snorted. "Tartarus take me if I know. I was going to ask you."
"Well, what is he?"
"The trappers who sold him said he was a draconequus. They're exotic, nearly extinct."
"Huh. My gran used to talk about them. Said they'd eat me if I was bad."
Discord fumed silently. Draconequui didn't eat ponies! They hadn't even eaten meat!
"Well, it's got a lion leg and an eagle talon, like a griffin, and griffins eat meat, don't they?"
"Fish, I think," the stallion said. "We'll try that. If he's part cat he should love it."
Discord sneered at them. Oh, no, he wasn't going to eat fish. Fish were alive.
The ponies left. When the unicorn returned, she had a bucket full of fish, which she tossed into Discord's cage. "Go on, you freaky critter, eat up!"
In response Discord picked up one of the fish and flung it at her.
She caught the fish in her magic and scowled. "I see your teeth there, critter. I know you're a meat eater. You don't get to be picky like some noblemare's pampered housecat here. You eat what you get and that's all that you get." The mare walked off. Discord was able to get a good look at the picture on her flank for the first time. It showed a chair and a whip. Discord couldn't see what those could possibly have to do with each other.
One of the fish wasn't even fully dead. Discord put it in his water trough. The rest he played with, tossing them in the air to catch again, or to slap hard with a different fish to send them flying. He managed to get up to juggling two fish before they fell. Fish didn't bounce, as it turned out, but they made a very satisfying splat noise when they hit the bars of his cage.
Eventually he looked up and realized he had an audience – three of the earth ponies that had been unloading were standing around his cage, watching his attempts to juggle. The one with the gold mane and the blue coat, who'd unloaded him from the wagon, was one of them. The other two were ponies Discord hadn't paid any attention to, a gray stallion with a red mane and a yellow stallion who also had a red mane, but a lighter shade of red.
"Wow," the gray pony said. "You think Whipcrack knows it can do this?"
"Naah," the blue one said. "She doesn't know anything about the creature. You know Mr. Thunder Roll bought it because it was a novelty."
"I'll show you a novelty," Discord growled, more for his own benefit since by now he'd figured out that the ponies didn't understand that he was speaking, let alone what he was saying. He lined up a shot through the bars and expertly beaned the blue stallion in the forehead with a fish.
"Aggressive," the yellow one said.
"But talented!" the gray one said. "Whipcrack's gonna love this thing."
Sullenly Discord retreated behind the small cage, where they couldn't see him as well. He'd been juggling for his own entertainment, not theirs.
The stallions left. Discord checked his water trough. The fish was swimming sluggishly. It was the length of his head, covered with pretty iridescent silver scales. "You can be my friend," he said to the fish. "Fire's gone, and Little Sister—" He choked up for a moment, a tightness in his chest and throat, and prickling in his eyes. "Little Sister's safe, but she's gone too. So you can be my new friend."
The naming of a pet was a complicated endeavor. When Discord was young he'd have just named the creature something like Fishy or Swimmy, but that seemed utterly childish to him now. "I'll name you River," he said. "Because you look like the kind of fish that would swim in the river. And you're kind of silvery and sparkly like a river."
His stomach growled, but there was nothing to eat except the dead fish. For a moment, Discord considered it. He hadn't killed those fish; would it really do any harm to eat them now that they were already dead? But the unicorn mare and the white earth stallion thought that he was a creature that ate fish. If they gave him fish and he ate it, then they would continue to give him fish. He had to refuse the fish if he ever wanted them to give him something different, and if he didn't refuse, they would kill more fish to feed to him. That wasn't okay.
He could see the sun setting through the clear mesh windows in the tent by the time the unicorn mare showed up again. "You need a name," she said. "Let's go with Mixup."
"Let's not," Discord said. "My name is Discord."
She ignored him, as he'd known she would. "Let's see what you can do, critter. The guys tell me they saw you juggling fish. Are you trained for juggling?" She rolled three small balls into the cage and guided them with her magic over to him.
Discord picked one up and bit it. It was rubber and nasty-tasting, but the look of irritation on the unicorn's face was worth it. "No, you idiot, that's not food! You were supposed to eat the fish! What kind of creature won't eat fish, but will eat a rubber ball?"
"The kind that doesn't eat fish," Discord said.
"Let's see if you know what to do with a hoop." She levitated a tall, round hoop into the cage, holding it about a pony's head height off the ground. "Jump! Jump, Mixup!"
Discord leisurely groomed his fur.
She presented him with several more tasks she wanted him to perform, and used nearly every synonym for the commands that Discord knew. Discord ostentatiously ignored or disobeyed all of them, enjoying the look of total frustration on the mare's face.
"Well. You're talented, but whoever trained you must have used such a weird command vocabulary that I'm probably gonna have to retrain you from scratch. Still, I guess it means you're trainable."
"Not to you I'm not," Discord muttered.
"And I see Little Mister Prissypants didn't find the cuisine to his liking. Well, you're not getting ham steaks, that's for sure. You can eat the fish or you can starve, whichever you prefer."
Discord glared at her. I'm going to escape. And then I'm going to find your stores of pony food, and I'm going to eat them all, and what I don't eat, I'll throw at the wall.
"We'll start training tomorrow morning. I'm gonna have to make it clear to Thunder Roll that he's not getting a return on investment quickly. Though I guess you could be a draw in the freak tent, no matter what." She left. Discord watched her go, seething. "I am not a freak," he repeated, snarling the words, but quietly. "I'm not. I'm a draconequus. If you've never seen something like me before, that's not my fault, that's just because you're stupid."
A pegasus came through and quenched the oil lamps hanging from the tent poles, throwing the animal tent into darkness. Discord peered out at the moon, still very low on the horizon.
First things first. He tested how narrow the bars really were by sticking his head straight up, so his antlers hung down at his side and his whole body was a single angular line. Carefully he shuffled to the edge of the cage and bent his neck, holding it at a sharp angle and pushing at the space between the bars. A bit of wiggling gave his small antler clearance, and then his head started squeezing through. The goat horn presented difficulties, but he managed to work it through. Then his dragon foot, which was too long, but if he went on tiptoe with it so it was vertical, he could work it through. The bar got stuck on his hip; he had to use his tail to wrap around the bar and pull himself. The other side of his body came out much more smoothly.
And now he was out. He crawled around the edge of his cage to the water trough. "I'm sorry, River," he whispered. "I don't have a cup to carry you in, or I'd take you out of here." He had to do something, though. River had been nearly dead when Discord had put him in the water; the ponies here obviously had less than no regard for his welfare, considering that they'd tried to feed him to Discord. "I tell you what, I'll find something and I'll get you out of here too."
Quietly he went on all fours past the various cages. Some of the animals made alerting sounds, but nopony came to investigate, so Discord was clear. Soon he reached the tent flaps, which had been tied tightly on the outside. Discord couldn't get at the ties with his claws, but it didn't matter, because there was enough give at the bottom that he could pull up the flap and squeeze himself underneath it.
Directly outside the tent there was a stack of buckets. Discord grinned. A bucket could certainly hold River and some of his water. Nopony seemed to be around, so he trotted over to the buckets. They were stacked fairly high. Discord frowned. If he pulled one from the bottom where it was easy to reach, others were likely to come tumbling down. He had to get one from the top, without gravity assistance because he still couldn't get his collar off. Discord flapped his wings as hard as he could, and finally got up to the top of the bucket stack.
He grabbed a bucket. He tried to be careful in lifting it off the stack, but his flight ability failed him; as he pulled it free, he didn't yet quite have clearance, and it struck another bucket beneath it. To his simultaneous horror and delight, the entire pile came crashing down.
Yikes. That was hilarious but it was going to draw a ton of attention; he had to do this as fast as possible. Running on all fours, dragging the bucket with his tail looped around the handle, he ran back toward the animal tent—
-straight into a net that was flung on him.
"How did I know it would be the draconequus?" the unicorn mare from before said tiredly. She levitated him without difficulty while he was still thrashing in the net. "Come on, boy. You're going back to your cage, and I'm going to figure out how you got out of it in the first place."
She tossed him back into the cage and inspected it carefully. "Still locked... no holes... hinges in good shape... oh crap, did you get yourself through the bars somehow? I didn't realize how skinny you are." She sighed. "All right, we'll move you to a different cage in the morning. In the meantime—"
Discord scrabbled at the wooden floor to stop himself from being pulled, but it didn't help. The telekinetic grip was inexorable. Within moments, he was stuffed back into the small cage, which was locked. "That should keep you from running off tonight."
She left. Discord tried to push the cage open; one of the hinges was unpinned, surely this couldn't be too hard. It didn't work. The cage was too small; pushing the door as hard as he could on the unpinned corner didn't give it enough clearance for him to squeeze through. Well, there was more than one way to catch a cat. He got both his talon and his lion paw out through the bars, and started working on the second hinge. It was much, much harder than unpinning the first hinge had been, because he couldn't see what he was doing and he didn't have his full range of motion. The moon was shining down through the mesh skylights at the top of the tent, rather than through the mesh windows on the east side, by the time he got it out.
He was so hungry, and exhausted, and his paws hurt. Once he got the door unhinged and open, all he did was stagger out and throw himself down on the wooden floor. It was hard and uncomfortable, unlike the bed he'd lined with leaves back in his cave, but he'd slept on worse and he was so very tired. The lack of food was gnawing at him, the temptation to eat one of the fish growing, but no. If he ate one, they'd never stop feeding him fish. He had to hold out. For River's sake. These were River's family lying dead all around him. He couldn't eat his friend's family even if he hadn't been the one that killed them.
Discord checked on his fish. River had pepped up some and was swimming more freely in the water trough. It wasn't really deep enough for him, but it was enough to keep him alive. "Don't worry, River. They'll probably give me more water in the morning."
He curled up by his water trough, close to his new friend, and tried not to think about Little Sister. He didn't have her to cuddle, so he curled tightly enough that he could cuddle his own tail, and let himself fall into sleep.
Loud noises woke him. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon, barely visible except as a pink lightening of the sky. There were ponies, mostly the earth pony workers but also the unicorn mare, in front of his cage.
"...got out of his carry cage and I want to know how," the unicorn was saying angrily. "This thing is a nuisance. Mr. Thunder wasted his money, in my opinion."
"We'll have to have somepony keeping an eye on him," one of the earth ponies said. "'Least until he settles down."
"Got the new cage open for him," another one said. "Any time you're ready, Miss Whipcrack."
Magic grasped Discord again. He saved his strength, waiting until the moment he was out of his cage, to start struggling, thrashing with all his strength. For a moment, he felt the magic on him lose its grip, and he fell, but the unicorn – Whipcrack, apparently – grabbed him again. His swishing tail hit a couple of ponies, but sadly neither of them were Whipcrack, so it didn't lessen the pull on him any. He beat his wings frantically but couldn't pull up out of her grip either.
She more or less threw him into a cage that had bars in a grid pattern rather than straight up and down, making the gaps between them too small for Discord to squeeze through. He landed hard, but used his tail to propel himself forward toward the door at full speed, trying to jump through it before it closed. He failed, and slammed muzzle first into the bars of the door, yelping at the sudden pain in his nose and mouth. Several of the ponies laughed.
Two of them pulled his water trough out of the old cage. "Huh, look at this. He was saving a fish in here," one of them said. "Maybe he only eats them when they're fresh?"
And then they dumped the water out onto the tent floor. River hit the stone tiles and flopped. "River!" Discord screamed, throwing himself at the bars again, trying to force himself through a gap that was entirely too small. "River!"
"Look at that, he's reaching for the fish," one of them said.
Whipcrack nodded. "Animals get very territorial over their food," she said. "We might as well give it to him." River squirmed on the stone, gills flaring as he gasped for water. "It should still be fresh enough if it's just been killed. Let me put it out of its misery."
And she stomped on River's head, crushing it.
Discord screamed. Whipcrack's magic lifted River's body and tossed it into his cell. He ran to his friend, but could tell immediately that River was dead. The fish's little body was still jerking and twisting slightly, as if he were alive, but his head was crushed flat and bleeding fish blood.
He bared his teeth and snarled at Whipcrack. "Oh, you don't like me taking your kill?" Whipcrack said. "Grow up, it's still perfectly edible. Eat it!"
Rage and grief overwhelmed him. She'd murdered his friend and now she was insisting that he eat the dead body? He could barely see through a haze of red. For a moment, just a moment, he felt his usual strength, the magic coursing within him, eager to be used, and he turned it outward. Hurt her! Make her sink into the ground!
The ground obligingly turned into thick mud. All the ponies standing around sank into it, shouting in surprise. Most of them sank only as deep as their fetlock, though one particularly large and bulky earth stallion sank in up to his knee.
And then Discord's collar simultaneously choked, shocked and burned him. He tried to scream, but he couldn't breathe. Discord fell backward, clawing at his neck, trying to pull the collar away.
"Oh, that was you, was it?" Whipcrack said, and he heard her breathing hard, rage in her voice. "Thought it would be funny to use that freaky magic the trappers told Thunder Roll about? You need to learn a lesson, right now, you disgusting beast." Her magic grabbed him while he was still choking, and flung him hard to what was now stone tile again, except tile that was smashed up and broken from the efforts of ponies to pull themselves free of it. Stone had neatly crumbled in a circle around Whipcrack's hooves, but was broken far more extensively and severely from the struggles of the earth ponies. Here on the tile himself, Discord could see that two ponies were engaged in smashing the stone tile around the big pony who'd sunk to his knees, and two other ponies were trying to haul him up and out with a rope.
Something struck him hard, just as the pain of the collar was starting to let up and let him breathe again. All the breath was knocked out of him by the blow. He tried to scream, again, and again didn't have the breath to do it with. Discord looked up to see a whip suspended in Whipcrack's magic, right before it slashed down and struck him again. This time he managed to scream.
"You! Don't! Use! Magic! To! Harm! Ponies!" she shouted, punctuating every word with another blow. Discord couldn't get away; her magic held him pinned down on the tiles.
"You killed my friend!" he shouted back at her, willing her to understand. "You killed River! He didn't do anything to you! He was just a fish, and you killed him!"
She showed no sign of understanding. "Don't you snarl at me!" she shouted again, in a flurry of blows that left him gasping, struggling to breathe through the intense pain and the impacts knocking the wind out of him, over and over. He tried to curl up smaller so she couldn't hit as much of him. "Any time you use your magic, you will be punished! If the collar isn't enough to restrain you, maybe the memory of this whipping will! Do you understand? Do you understand?"
"Yes, yes, I understand!" he screamed, but she didn't recognize that as speech either, and just kept asking him if he understood, over and over, and repeating that he would be beaten for using his magic, as she kept whipping him. He stopped trying to communicate with her, recognizing that it wasn't doing him any good, and wailed, "Mommy!" instead. Maybe if his mother hadn't been able to find him, maybe she would hear him if he screamed hard enough. Maybe she would finally come back and save him.
Finally Whipcrack stopped beating him. Her magic picked him up and tossed him back in his cell, hard. "Feed him in 20 minutes. I don't want him to start associating food and punishment," she said, and walked off, her hooves clacking on the now-uneven stone tile. "Oh, and get somepony to clean up this floor. We don't need Whitetail Junction suing us to replace the stone tiles in their town arena."
Discord curled up around River's poor destroyed body, and sobbed. "I'm sorry, River," he whispered to the fish. I should have tried harder to escape last night. I shouldn't have stopped just because I was tired. I should have realized that if they tried to feed me your family as food then they wouldn't have any respect for your life either. I should have known I had to save you. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry..."
He hated the ponies. He hated them so much. Every part of his body hurt, and he couldn't stop crying, and he was scared, but he wasn't going to let any of that cow him. He was going to get out, and he was going to make that unicorn pay for killing River and beating him. They had no right to do this to him. Or to River. No right.
Some time later, one of the earth ponies came by and started tossing fish in through the gaps in the bars. It took Discord a few moments to realize what was happening. When he did, he snarled again, limped over to where the fish were piling up, and started throwing them back through the gaps in the bars, out onto the tile. The earth pony glared at him.
"Whipcrack says this is your dinner, you stupid creature. You're not getting anything else!" Discord managed to hit the pony in the face with the fish. "All right, that's it! Starve if you want to!" The stallion gathered up the fish that had fallen on the ground and put them back in his cart, carrying them over to the cage of one of the big cats and tossing them in over there. Discord went back to his vigil over River's body, and started to cry again. He was so hungry, and he had no way to bury River or return him to flowing water or even immolate him in Fire. The smell of his friend's dead body was growing more and more enticing as his hunger grew, but his disgust at the thought of eating what had been his only friend here in this terrible place remained strong. But if he just tossed River's body out of his cage, River would be fed to another creature, maybe one of those big cats, and Discord couldn't bear that idea, either. The ponies thought River was food. He wasn't going to do anything to let them think they were right.
"Refusing to eat, you said?"
Discord opened an eye. There was an earth stallion in front of the cage, but he was less brutally muscular than the others he was talking to, built more like a unicorn than they were – a little taller, a lot more slender – and he wore saddlebags, a vest, and a cravat around his neck. He was cream-colored, with a mane the color of a robin's egg, and Discord couldn't see his cutie mark with his saddlebags in the way.
"He just keeps throwing the fish out of the cage," the blue earth pony from before said.
"And he had a fish in his water trough, and since Whipcrack killed the fish before giving it to him, he's been holding onto it, but not eating it?"
"Uh-huh," a copper-colored earth stallion said.
The stallion with the saddlebags sighed deeply. "Whipcrack has never been willing to recognize that animals have feelings like ponies do," he said. "We know the creature is a magic user, and fairly intelligent for an animal – probably on the level of one of the great apes. Which Whipcrack has never worked with, and Gaia preserve us, I hope she never tries to."
"Mr. Whisper, that's nice and all, but we just need to know what we oughta be feeding the thing," the blue pony said.
"Well, let's find out, shall we?" He trotted up to the cage, pulled his saddlebags off with his teeth, and laid them down at his feet. Then he unzipped one of the bags, reached down, and came up with an apple in his hoof. Suddenly Discord's eyes were riveted to him. "Look at that! He's showing interest in the apple."
"But Miss Whipcrack said he had teeth like a meat eater."
"Let's see." He offered the apple through the bars. Discord snatched it and devoured it, including the core. He was too hungry to waste any part of it.
Whisper, if that was his name, turned to the other ponies. "Try pig slops. See if he'll eat those. Occasionally offer him different meats – chicken, pork, squirrel – and occasionally give him a live animal, such as a chicken. My guess is that he doesn't recognize fish as food; he might at one point have been raised as a pet in a household where there was an aquarium or a koi pond, and he was trained to consider fish part of the family. Given the magical outburst and the screeching Whipcrack told me about, and the fact that he had the fish in his water trough... I think he was attempting to keep it as a pet."
"But he's an animal, Mr. Whisper. How the hay would he know to keep a pet?"
"He's a smart animal. I've seen parrots and apes befriend and tend smaller animals, and while with the parrots the behavior is usually shown to other birds, similar birds such as parakeets and budgies, and could be misplaced parental behavior... I've seen apes care for lizards and rabbits. I'm fairly sure apes are clear on the concept that those are not their offspring."
"I'm not an animal!" If this Whisper was able to recognize that Discord was smart enough to have a pet, maybe he could actually understand that Discord was a talking creature, like a pony. "I can talk! I'm like a pony! Let me out!"
"Listen to him chatter," Whisper said, smiling fondly. "It almost sounds like he's talking."
"I am talking!"
"Well, thank you kindly for coming by and checking on him, Mr. Whisper," the blue pony said. "Miss Whipcrack's sometimes pretty stern with the critters, but if the draconequus dies before Mr. Thunder's had a chance to get a return on his investment... well, let's just say a lot of us would be looking for a new job, and some of us might be doing it with a broken leg or two."
"No problem. It's my job, after all," the cream-colored stallion said. "They don't call me Faun Whisper because I like to chat up young deer quietly, after all." He laughed.
The ponies left. Discord slumped down in his cage, feeling defeated. Even the pony who acknowledged that he was a "smart animal" still thought he was an animal, and couldn't recognize that he was speaking. To be fair, Discord wasn't speaking pony – he could understand the language fluently, but it was very hard for him to speak in it, and he couldn't do it unless he thought carefully about what he wanted to say. But come on, the draconequus language should at least sound like a language!
Except that it was Discord speaking it, and he couldn't make his tongue behave itself properly anymore.
He had to face facts. He hadn't wanted to admit this to himself for the longest time... but he'd forgotten how to talk. Since Mommy and the other draconequui had disappeared, he'd had no one to talk to, and the changes to his body made sounds that he made come out wrong. Not only did his forked tongue misbehave and fail to make the sounds he wanted, but his fluid sounds came out like bird noises sometimes and cat noises other times, and he couldn't even make half the solid sounds ponies made anymore.
For the longest time, he hadn't cared, because it wasn't like ponies were going to listen to him anyway. But now he knew what the price was for his inability to speak pony and the fact that the sounds he made came out like animal noises even when he was speaking draconequus. Which meant he had to learn to speak pony, and speak it right, if he ever wanted them to recognize that he was a talking creature.
Two of the earth pony workers came over, carrying a bucket on a pole yoked between them. They set it down, opened a tiny door that Discord hadn't noticed on one side of his cage, and slid an empty water trough with a divider in the center into his cage. Part of the trough still stuck out on the side they had inserted it on. One of them dragged over a hose and inserted it into Discord's cage, while the other turned it on. Cold water quickly filled the half of the trough that wasn't sticking out of the cage. Then they dumped the contents of the bucket into the part of the trough that was sticking out. There seemed to be a slope to the bottom so that the stuff went down into the part of that half of the trough that was in Discord's cage.
Discord sniffed at the unappetizing... stuff. He couldn't even tell what it was. Some kind of sludge, containing thoroughly melted bread goo, vegetable peels, apple cores, flower stems, grass, musty-smelling hay, the leafy tops of carrots, the strings at the ends of string beans, and mushy, bruised fruit. It didn't seem to have any dead animals in it, though, and he was hungry enough not to care that it wasn't particularly appetizing; he couldn't see anything in it that he couldn't eat, so he started eating. At first he pulled pieces out of the slop with his paws and put them in his mouth, but quickly realized it would take him forever to eat it that way, and besides, it was wet and gooey. He stuck his mouth in the slop and used his hands to shovel it toward his mouth, pushing it in as fast as he could chew. It wasn't great, but it wasn't as disgusting as it looked. When he had eaten all of it, he licked his muzzle and paws clean, then drank from the water trough to wash it all down.
River was starting to stink, a lot. Discord didn't know what to do about that. He didn't want to just toss his friend's body on the floor to be fed to other animals, but what else could he do?
The floor of this cage wasn't wood; it was the stone tiles. They had left him nothing he could relieve himself in, and while he'd been peeing through the bars of the cage, he couldn't stick his tail out through one of the holes to let the solid waste drop out. The idea of just pooping in his cage where he'd have to smell it was gross, though.
Discord couldn't get his entire tail through the gaps in the bars, but he could get some of it through. He fished around until he managed to get his tail around the handle of the bucket. By contorting himself with his tail pressed up against the bars and his eagle talon stretched back behind him to hold the bucket up to the cage, he managed to poop outward through a gap in the bars and into the bucket. Then he let down the bucket so it was next to the cage, went and got River's body, and put it in the bucket with the poop. Poop would get buried or flushed, not eaten, and that way River would also get buried or be returned to the water, and nothing would eat him. It was the best he could do for his friend.
He wasn't going to make any more friends, he vowed to himself. He could have gotten away if he hadn't had to go back for River, and his exhaustion and his failure to act when he had the chance had gotten River killed. He was bad for friends because he couldn't take care of them, and they were bad for him because they'd drag him down. So he couldn't have any, not until he was free again.
He napped as well as he could during the day. When night finally came, he set out to escape, once more. Everything still hurt from the whipping this morning, but that just made escape more vital.
All the cages had the same kinds of hinge pins. A quarter of the night went by, judging from the position of the moon, before Discord had one of the pins out. This cage had three hinges, not two. The hinge in the middle was even harder because Discord couldn't reach it; he had to fly up to it and then cling tightly to the bars with his tail and dragon foot while he used his talon and paw to work the pin out.
Once it was done, though, the door to the cage pivoted just enough that he could push open the lower corner and slip through the gap he created. This time he had no friend to go back for, nothing to hold him back. He slunk toward the tent opening, and...
...there was an earth pony there, playing cards with himself.
Discord hid in the shadows, considering how to get past the earth pony. Maybe he could just wait here until the pony left to relieve himself, but what if he never did that? He remembered now one of the earth ponies saying that somepony had to keep an eye on him, this morning. Had there been a guard stationed at the tent entrance all day long? He hadn't looked.
Well. Time for a new plan. Discord slunk back between two cages. The manticore growled and rustled in its sleep; the bear simply snored. The tent fabric was made of rough, strong fabric, similar to burlap but more tightly woven. When Discord tried to shred it with his claws, it didn't shred. Instead his claws caught on it. That was irritating, but after he extricated his claws, he had another plan.
He used his claws to pull the fabric inward, where he could get a good grip on it with his teeth, particularly his single fang. After a lot of biting, tearing, and carefully aiming his fang downward, he had a small hole. He forced his tail through the hole, and dragged downward as hard as he could, while pulling inward. In tiny increments, the hole ripped. As soon as it was large enough for him to grasp both edges with his paw and talon, he did so, then pressed his dragon foot against it while he held tightly to both sides. Under pressure, the fabric tore. The sound frightened him – what if the guard pony heard? – but he'd chosen his spot well. The snoring of the bear masked the sound of the ripping.
As soon as the fabric had a large enough hole in it that he could squeeze through, he was gone.
Fresh air! That didn't stink like dozens of animals in cages! Discord trotted across the stone tiles of the arena, making a beeline for what appeared to be bushes a short distance away. The woods were too far away, along the far end of the stone arena, but the bushes demarcated a much closer edge. As soon as he could get into the bushes, he could hide where ponies couldn't possibly find him. Then he'd need to steal something sharp enough that it could cut metal, to get this collar off, and then he'd be free.
A spotlight suddenly turned to fix on him. Startled, Discord flapped his wings and scuttled out of the light, but the damage was done.
What seemed like a dozen ponies poured out of small tents staked in the grass out beyond the edge of the stone tiles, chasing after him. Discord ran, ducking into another tent, where two mares taking off elaborate makeup jobs screamed. He scooted out of there as fast as he could, into another tent, where he ran over a sleeping griffin. The griffin squawked and grabbed Discord by the leg. He kicked wildly and smacked the griffin with his tail several times before the other chimera let go. Out of that tent, and nearly into a net that a group of earth ponies were running with. He dodged sideways, barely avoiding the net, and ran for the bushes again.
In the moonlight, and the light of the bright magical spotlights, everything was shadows if he wasn't directly in the punishing light. He didn't see the shadow of the pegasus descending onto him until the pony was very nearly on top of him, and at that point there was no more time to dodge. Discord shrieked as pony legs wrapped around his small body, pinning his wings to his back. The pegasus climbed back into the air, holding tightly despite Discord's struggles.
Well. If the pegasus holding him thought Discord was going to stop resisting just because they were up in the air, he or she had another think coming. Discord curled around and bit one of the legs holding him, hard. The pegasus screamed and dropped him. Discord's own wings unfurled and flapped wildly, barely controlling his descent as he fell. He skidded on stone tile and ran for another tent.
He never made it. A magical field tightened around him, and he was lifted into the air, still struggling.
A large, fat pegasus who didn't look flightworthy waddled toward him. "Whipcrack! Tartarus take it, this is the second night you've nearly let my draconequus get away!"
Discord turned, frantically, to see Whipcrack scowling, her horn lit. "Sorry, sir. He's a very clever beast, this one."
"Well, you need to teach him who's boss!" The pegasus had a long black cane strapped to his side. He reared up slightly, flapping his wings, and grasped the cane. "I paid much too much for that creature for you to just let him go like that!"
"Sir, we didn't let him go. He keeps breaking out of his cage."
"'Course he does! Look at those clever little fingers! Like a monkey paw, those are, but with claws! You know how much trouble the monkeys give us!"
"Yes, sir, but we can't very well put a mitten on him; he'd just claw through it."
"Not a mitten, Whipcrack. Wires! Wire those clever little fingers together! And snip those claws while you're at it. We can't declaw him – he's got to look ferocious for the rubes – but we can cut them down to size! Put him on the ground and hold him."
"Yes, sir." Once again Discord was pinned against the stone tiles.
His breathing was ragged with terror. "Don't," he said, in his very best pony. "Don't, please..."
They took no notice. "You!" the pegasus said, and kicked Discord, making him yelp. "You are worth far too much money for me to allow you to behave this way! Let me teach you a lesson, little beast – no creature escapes Yellowtail and Thunder's Amazing Circus! No creature!" He lifted his cane and brought it down on Discord's back.
The whip had been bad enough, but this was far more horrible, hitting with such force that Discord thought his ribs might be breaking. He screamed, and tried to scrabble away, but Whipcrack's magic held him to the ground as the pegasus struck him again and again with the cane.
It took only a few blows before Discord was sobbing, once again curling in on himself to try to minimize the damage. The pegasus hit him several times after that, before finally putting the cane away, panting. "There we go. Hopefully some punishment will train him to stop trying to run away. Whipcrack, I expect to see that assessment of what tricks he can do, tomorrow, and no more of this horsepuckey that he won't cooperate. Animals don't get to tell us that they won't cooperate."
"Yes, Mr. Thunder."
"And don't let him run away again! Wires, that's the way to go!"
Back in the tent, Whipcrack bound Discord's paws in front of him, his legs behind him, and stretched him out on the ground, fastened between two tent pegs at the front corner. She grabbed his pegasus wing and held it, despite his frantic attempts to flap it, pinning his bat wing to his back at the same time. Then she took a scissor and chopped away half his feathers. It didn't hurt, but it terrified him, and he screamed and wailed, struggling against his bonds and against her magic.
Then she straightened the digits on his talon, wrapped a thin gold wire around each one individually, and then looped another wire through the individual wrappings, pulling it tight and winding it around his talons so he couldn't spread them apart. She clipped the nails on his talons, then pushed down on his lion paw hard enough that the claws came out against his will and clipped them. And then she wired together the digits on his lion paw, the same as she'd done to his talon.
By the time she was done wiring and clipping, Discord was exhausted from his struggles, panting. He lay limply, no longer fighting back. The worst was over, he was sure. The fat pegasus – Thunder, apparently, or some ponies had referred to him as Thunder Roll – had just said to wire his paws and clip his claws.
Then Whipcrack pulled out her whip, and Discord started screaming and struggling again.
"You got me in trouble with my boss," she said coldly. "You made me look bad. Animals do not make Whipcrack look bad, do you understand me?" The whip slashed down. "Do you understand me?"
Why was she even asking? She wouldn't even listen when he said yes; she didn't even believe he could talk. With all his strength, Discord pulled at his bonds, trying to escape, but she'd tied him tightly. His goat leg slipped free, which freed his dragon leg as well, but Whipcrack just grabbed his tail with her magic and held it down as she beat him, and no matter how hard he kicked and pushed at the stone below him, he couldn't get free.
Finally she flung him back into his cage – which had been repaired, the door no longer hanging off its hinge. "You'd better be ready to do some tricks tomorrow because I have just about had it with you. Try one more stunt like this and you'll think what you got tonight was sweet mercy."
Alone in the cage, Discord cried. Mommy? Mommy, I really need you. Please, Mommy, please come back and save me, please...
The tricks they wanted him to do were insultingly stupid. Sit. Lie down. Beg. Like he was a dog.
Discord hurt all over. He'd only been bleeding in one or two places, and those had scabbed over by morning, but his body was mottled with bruises under his coat, some of them dark enough to be visible on his arms or neck. And he wanted to punish Whipcrack for what she'd done to him. So when she gave him instructions, all he did was glare at her.
"Can't believe something this smart hasn't had any training," Whipcrack muttered. "All right. Let's take it from the top. Sit!"
He didn't – until her magic pushed him into a sitting position. "Very good. You get a treat!" The "treat" consisted of a very small, not very sweet cookie, ironically in the shape of a dog.
Over and over, for what felt like hours. "Sit!" Magic shoving him into place, and then the cookie. "Good boy!" What was she praising him for? She was the one doing all the work.
Finally, she tried "Sit!" without making him do it. So he didn't. He just glared at her.
"Oh, for the love of – this thing's an idiot!" Whipcrack threw up her hooves in frustration. "How long does it take to understand 'sit', for the sake of all?"
That made him angry. He wasn't an idiot just because he didn't want to perform for somepony who'd killed his fish, beaten him twice, and wired his digits together. His paws really hurt, and his attempts to undo the wires with his teeth had just gotten him shocked. Staring at her insolently, he did a somersault.
She blinked at him. "Well... that's not exactly 'sitting', but that's as close as we've come to anything," she said. "Roll over, boy!"
He stood up on his hind legs and jumped.
He lay down and pretended to be dead – complete with tongue lolling out of mouth and eyes open but rolled back in his head.
Whipcrack stared at him. "There's no consistency. You aren't working off remapped commands. You... you know exactly what I'm telling you to do and you're just not doing it, are you?"
Discord grinned at her insolently... a grin he lost almost immediately as she pulled out her whip. "Well, then, if you understand the commands, try this. Sit!"
He did nothing – and got a whiplash across his back. Discord yelped.
Discord backed away. He was in his cage and couldn't go very far; Whipcrack didn't seem to be afraid of him attacking her, with her magic, but she was very concerned with him escaping, so she had gone into his cage to try to train him. He certainly couldn't get out of range of her magic within the cell; she lashed him again, from behind, making him bolt forward toward her again with a cry.
"We can do this all day, Mixup. Sit!"
Discord tried to fly, despite the pain in his wings from the beatings last night, hoping he could get some altitude and escape the whip that way – his cage was a good bit taller than the unicorn was. But his clipped wing wouldn't generate any lift, and the whip lashing across the other wing made him recognize the futility of trying to escape this. He couldn't fight Whipcrack; she'd just keep hitting him every time he defied her.
The next time she told him to sit, he sat. Sullenly and with bad grace, but he did it.
He let a few days go by before the next escape attempt. Everything hurt and he needed to heal.
Whipcrack was pleased with how well his "training" was coming along. The slops he'd been fed had been reduced greatly, barely enough to keep him going, but they'd been replaced by fruit and cookie treats when he obeyed her commands. She hadn't realized yet that she could give him extremely complex commands, because she refused to recognize that he was sapient, but now that he was cooperating at least the commands weren't insultingly stupid anymore. Bit by bit, she'd gotten him to balance on a ball. It wasn't hard; despite having a goat hoof and a dragon paw, Discord was amazingly good at balancing on things. She had him attempting to juggle, though he still could only manage two balls at a time. He could jump through a hoop as high as a pony's head, and if the hoop was higher, he could grab it with his paws and flip himself through it. He could not only somersault, but do pawstands, with only his lion paw holding him up.
She still hit him with the whip occasionally, when he remembered how much he hated her and he got sullen and didn't want to keep performing. For the most part, though, it was horrifyingly easy to forget his hatred and his desire to be uncooperative. She praised him when he did the tricks correctly, and no one had ever praised him for anything since Mommy had disappeared – well, Little Sister had, but she didn't count. No one who wasn't animated by his own magic, anyway. And she gave him food that was much yummier than the slops had ever been, and he actually enjoyed the challenge of using his body to perform stunts, the more complicated and difficult, the better. The wires around his digits didn't even hurt so much anymore.
Four days after his wings and claws had been clipped, he recognized that he was in danger of forgetting why he wanted to escape so badly, which made it vital to get away. He was afraid – the bruises had mostly healed, but the memory of pain was still very, very vivid. But that just made it more important to not get caught.
At night, he used his teeth to carefully, carefully unwind the wires around his talons. He used his talons to remove the wires on his lion paw, and then went straight to the door... only to discover that something had been done to the hinge pins that made them impossible for him to remove. They were completely coated with slippery grease, and even his claws slid right off them.
All right, next strategy. He carefully felt out the buckle on his collar. It was locked with a very tiny padlock, and his hinge pin from the small cage was too big to pick that... but the wires that had been around his paws were just the right size. With total concentration, Discord worked at the padlock on his collar for more than half the night. He'd never picked such a tiny lock, and being unable to use his eyes, given that the thing was positioned around his neck and even he couldn't bend far enough to see it, made it very difficult and frustrating... but the joy that thrilled through him when he finally, finally, heard and felt the "click" and was able to pull the padlock open made it all worth it.
With the padlock removed, Discord was able to unbuckle the collar and remove it. He shook his head, trying to feel his magic again. It felt... kind of numb, actually. Not completely numb, like it had with the collar on, but stiff and hard to use. So he was going to have to be careful. He needed to avoid using magic for anything that wasn't easy, if he could possibly help it.
Making iron bars into spaghetti or strings was hard. Iron wanted to be tough and strong. But as Discord focused on them, he found a way that they wanted to be bendy. If they were red hot, they would normally be bendy, so all he had to do was take the bendiness of red hot and push it onto them when they were cold.
Even with bendiness, it took all his strength to push the bars apart. Since the cage was a grid, he had to push some bars up and down, and others left and right, and he had to push hard. Iron was strong even when it was bendy. False dawn was lighting the sky by the time he got a hole big enough to climb through. He was very tired – obviously he hadn't slept all night, and the physical exertion of bending the bars had been grueling – but he wasted no time leaping through the hole.
There was no time to spare to work on the tent itself carefully, but he didn't think he had the strength yet to make it turn like paper or strings. Instead, he went to where it was held down with a tent pole, tied so tightly so close to the ground that he couldn't get the stiff fabric to lift enough to let him squeeze out, and simply pushed untiedness onto the rope that held the tent to the tent pole. Then he pushed at the stiff fabric, hard, until it unloosened enough from the pole that he could crawl underneath.
Discord slunk along the edge of the tent, sticking to the shadows, trying to find a way to get out to the bushes or to the open grass outside the stone-tiled arena without passing anywhere near one of the spotlights. He darted to the shade of another tent, and then another, and then under a wagon. Yes! The sun was rising, but he was so close to the edge, and now the spotlights were dimmer and less noticeable. Ironically, although the area was better lit with the sun coming up, there was less contrast between light and dark, so he wouldn't stand out in the unshadowed parts as much as he had. He glanced around himself from under the wagon. No pony hooves, no pony voices. Time to do this.
At full speed, he bolted straight for the edge of the arena... and howled as pain shot through him, just as he crossed onto the grass. He jerked and convulsed, and couldn't move any part of his body voluntarily, and there was a searing pain just like the shocks from the collar, except it was coming from inside him and all throughout him.
"Oh, dear." It was Faun Whisper, the cream-colored earth stallion. "Whipcrack wasn't joking about setting a ward specifically for you, was she?" The pony bit the scruff of Discord's neck and lifted him, then trotted onto the stone tile. As soon as Discord was above the tile and not above the grass, the shocks stopped, but he was so exhausted and weak from the shocks, he hung limply, with no attempt to struggle.
"Whisper! Give him here!" Whipcrack was standing in front of the animal tent, pawing the ground, nostrils flaring with fury.
Whisper trotted over to her and deposited Discord in front of her. "Your wards seem to have done the trick. He was suffering from a severe, continuous shock the entire time he was out beyond the tile. I take it a pre-existing barrier like that can be tied into a ward to make it more effective?"
Whipcrack glared. "Whisper, you're an earth pony. Don't pretend you know something about magic."
"And don't pretend you're an expert on training smarter animals," Whisper retorted. "Shocks, whippings, beatings... no wonder he keeps trying to escape! If I treated my monkeys this way I wouldn't have kept a single one."
"Mr. Thunder put me in charge of this creature. Not you." She levitated Discord with her magic. He'd been struggling to move, to get up and run, but every muscle hurt and they were sluggish to respond to him. Now Whipcrack was going to punish him for the escape attempt. He whimpered, and struggled weakly, but he just didn't have it in him to fight back hard... not like fighting back had ever helped anyway.
"Mr. Thunder would like to see some return on his investment. When do you expect the creature will be able to perform?"
"I have not had nearly enough sleep, Whisper, don't start this with me."
"If I don't, Mr. Thunder will. I've been told that if he doesn't perform at the next stop, he'll be handed over to me."
"Do you comprehend that this creature has magic? Dangerous magic? What are you going to do if he turns the ground to quicksand like he did a few days ago?"
"Probably summon Mavis to assist."
"Mavis! That charlatan doesn't know a single genuine spell! Don't tell me she's got you as fooled as the rubes! Just because she dresses like a witch—"
"Mavis is a perfectly competent unicorn. Her spells may run more toward illusion than brute force, but I'm quite certain she'd be as adept as you are at undoing anything the creature does. He's just an animal, after all; dragons use magic too, but it's a handful of rote spells, not the complexity of true unicorn magic, and I'm certain the same is true for Mixup here."
Feeling was coming back to Discord's limbs, and strength. More importantly, given that he was suspended in the unicorn's magical field still, his magic seemed to be thawing out. If the two of them could just keep arguing... it felt like listening to them was energizing him. All he had to do was cast something that knocked Whipcrack unconscious, and then he could run again. He looked up into the sky, but there was no convenient cloud he could cast heaviness onto.
"Well, you and Mavis can go sit on it and spin. The draconequus is mine to train unless Mr. Thunder actually tells me otherwise, and I think he'll be ready to perform by the next stop."
"Oh, that would be excellent. Because we're moving on tonight."
"Tonight? After the show? Is that wise?"
"Far be it for me to argue with Mr. Thunder," Whisper said. "I would imagine there's some financial imperative driving us to pack up and flee by the dark of the night."
"There always is," Whipcrack sighed.
There. Discord focused his attention on Whipcrack's hooves, and only her hooves, and flipped their gravity.
Whipcrack screamed as her body inverted and she fell a short distance into the air. Her hooves weren't heavy enough to pull her too far into the air, because Discord hadn't cast gravity reversal on her whole body, so her head and barrel were still trying to fall down while her hooves were trying to fall up. Her magical hold on him released, and he was off like a shot.
"I'll get him!" Whisper yelled back at Whipcrack, and galloped after Discord.
Discord hadn't counted on that. Well, it wasn't that important. In a wide empty field, he'd have no hope of outrunning an earth stallion, but in a plaza coming to life with ponies leaving wagons and entering tents, moving boxes and bags, and pulling carts, there were plenty of obstacles that would slow the earth pony down. He wove around the hooves of other ponies, sometimes making them trip and drop whatever they were carrying on their backs, much to his amusement. He went under wagons and kept going, while his pursuer had to go around. Other ponies joined the chase, but he lost them as well. By the time he reached the edge of the plaza, he couldn't even see Faun Whisper behind him anymore.
Discord started to step over the edge of the tiles – and hesitated. Whipcrack had cast that spell, and she was probably still upside down, but did that mean her spell would be inactive? He couldn't take the risk.
He opened up his inner vision to study the properties of the spell. There was the part about shocking someone who crossed the barrier, and there was the part that filtered the targets so that it would apply only to the particular individuals Whipcrack wanted it to apply to. Unlike the spell at the Cheddar farm, where the parameters had been broad and simple, this was complicated. The prohibited individuals were defined with... he wasn't really sure. Something using sympathy magic, or symbolic magic – either a part of the individual standing in for the whole individual, or a symbol representing the individual. Either way, he couldn't tell which of the individuals on the prohibited list was himself.
Hooves clopping rapidly behind him. Hastily he tried to re-pointer the spell so it would shock everyone but the prohibited individuals, but that didn't work because the spell would have cost too much energy if he'd done that and it didn't have that much. He couldn't rewrite the spell to point at a completely different group. But what if instead of shocks it was tickles? He ought to still be able to run even if he was being tickled, and he could see that the spell would run out once he got a dozen pony-lengths away from the ward.
Discord altered the properties of the spell, jumped off the stone, and immediately started giggling and squirming at the tickling sensation. It didn't stop him from running, though he kept flinching from imaginary tickles and that slowed him down. But all he had to do was get far enough away—
This time he saw the pegasus shadow swooping down at him. He dodged, rolled, shriek-laughed as the tickling intensified, and bolted again... straight into a dark blue unicorn who hadn't seemed to be there a split second ago.
"So you're the one who has the entire circus in an uproar," the unicorn said, smiling, as she levitated him. The pegasus, a showmare in scanty sequined clothing, soared away. Discord tried to cast on the unicorn to make her magic push him instead of pull, but the tickling was destroying his concentration. He couldn't stop laughing and writhing and batting at imaginary feathers brushing all over him.
She carried him back onto the stone tiles, out of the effect of the ward. Discord panted, and tried to focus his concentration on breaking free of the unicorn. And then pain shot through him, and the choking sensation, and something clasped around his neck. Discord clawed at his neck to find that the collar had just been fastened back on. And there was Whipcrack, with her horn lit.
Oh no. He shrank back, remembering what had happened the last time he'd used magic in front of Whipcrack. No, no, please, I have to get away, I can't let her do this to me, please... Frantically he tried to undo the buckle of the collar, or tear it with his claws to get it off.
"Thanks for catching him," Whipcrack said coolly, not sounding particularly thankful at all. "I've got him now."
And then her magic hung him upside down by the tail and dragged his paws behind his back, so he couldn't reach his collar anymore. He swung precariously, his head within less than a hoof of the stone below. Occasionally his antler actually did hit the stone tile, sending a jolting pain through his head.
She carried him into the tent. "Wow, you really stepped in it this time," she said. "I'm not sure if it's possible for you to have made matters worse for yourself. First you try to escape, again. And then you attack me. With magic. And then try to escape again after that."
The blood was rushing to his head, giving him a pressure headache. "Please..."
"I told you last time that if you pulled another stunt like this, you'd think what you got last time was merciful. But then you added in attacking me with magic. In comparison to what you're going to get now, you're going to think the last time was downright fun."
He tried to get his paws to the collar, tried to use his magic to free himself despite the collar. All he got was muscle strain in his shoulders and repeated shock-chokings from the collar. "Let me go," he begged, knowing with his mind that she wouldn't understand him and she wouldn't do it even if she did, but he couldn't believe this was inevitable. There had to be something he could do, some leverage he could employ, something.
Then she swung him, like a pendulum, and smacked the side of his head against the iron bars of a cage.
Discord cried out. She swung him again, this time more sideways, as if he were the whip she was cracking. His back and wings hit the bars first. Discord felt something crack, and horrible pain in his wing, and he screamed – and screamed even louder as the motion followed through and the back of his head slammed into the iron bars.
After several blows where she swung him at something hard, she dropped him, and began to whip him so fast he couldn't even see where she was going to hit until he felt the pain. A long, drawn-out, agonized wail came from his throat, chopped by the frequent shocks of impact forcing breath out of him. Interspersed with the blows from the whip, she kicked him repeatedly, stomped on him, and picked him up with her magic to whirl him around and throw him. Over and over she screamed, "No magic! No running away! Do you understand me? Do you?"
By the time the punishment was over, Discord was only semi-conscious, and everything in his body hurt more than he had ever imagined possible. Whipcrack dumped him back in his cage, and he lay there unmoving, because it hurt far, far too much to move, and maybe if he didn't move and he tried not to breathe too much and he tried even harder not to think, maybe unconsciousness would finally claim him.
Discord wasn't aware that a unicorn veterinarian had been called in to treat him until he felt magic pushing broken bones into place. He screamed, though with all the screaming he'd done the night before, his voice had turned into a hoarse rasp. The vet's magic held him still, no matter how hard he tried to fight back. Then he felt warmth spreading over each of the broken places, simultaneously soothing and painful. The warmth turned into intense heat. He whimpered piteously. It hurt; just a little hotter and it would start burning him, he thought. But the pain of the broken bones faded into the heat, and when the heat itself faded, he could move his limbs again. They ached horribly, especially when he tried to move, but now it was at least possible.
He faded back into sleep again after that. When he woke, he had a great deal of difficulty getting to his feet, and his back ached more than it had right after the healing. The whip weals and broken wings that had been healed still ached, but there was more to it than that – something heavy, something stiff, and it was harder to move his limbs than it should be, as if he was pulling against resistance.
When he managed to turn his head to look behind him, he saw a wooden rod, or a pair of them fastened together in a triangle with no bottom, running along his back. It had been fastened into place with straps that went over his wings, holding them painfully tight against his body, and there were ropes laced through it by both sets of limbs. Both of his upper limbs had been tied by the wrist to the rope running through a hole in the flat rods, so if he stretched one limb out the other was pulled up against his body, and it had been tied tightly enough that he couldn't quite put his paws together. He could still walk on all fours in a bowlegged fashion, his paws bent slightly and far out from his body. The rope at the back was tied only around his dragon leg, the other end of it tied around his barrel and then looped back to fasten to itself right next to the rod. It was taut enough that it hobbled him, making it impossible for him to get on two legs.
He twisted his head and tried to bite at the ropes, but they had metal wires twined through them, which hurt his teeth. Discord couldn't bite through metal. He lay panting, frightened and in a great deal of pain, for some time until Whipcrack arrived.
"That is your Board of Shame, Mixup," Whipcrack said, using her magic to attach a leash to his collar, and then pulling him out of his cage, almost dragging him. He yelped in renewed pain. "You're a very flexible fellow, and you've proven that you can't be trusted with that flexibility. That board is staying on you until I feel confident that you can be trusted to perform, and if we take it off for training and performing, we're putting it back on as soon as we're done, until I'm sure that you're done with this escape artist business. Now. We're going to practice tail lifting, because right now that's all you've got the range to do." She placed a smallish barbell near his tail. He'd done this particular trick, if you could even call it that, once, yesterday. "Mixup! Tail lift!"
Discord glared at her. Why did she think he was going to cooperate with her anymore, after the savagery of the beating earlier and the restraints she'd put him in? His tail hurt, badly; the veterinarian had fixed dislocated vertebrae, but the fact remained that Whipcrack had held him by the tail when she'd tortured him by swinging him into things or throwing him, and now the muscles hurt horribly.
Whipcrack pulled out her signature whip. "Mixup. Tail lift."
She was going to beat him again. He didn't care. The whip couldn't hurt as much as he already ached. "No," he muttered, and didn't move.
The whip came down, proving his premise incorrect. It could hurt more than he already ached. But he was so, so tired of being beaten and forced into doing things regardless of how he felt about it. Maybe if he stood his ground and endured the beating, maybe Whipcrack would realize that it was hurting him too much to try to do the tail lift, and stop demanding it.
Three more iterations of this, and his resolve was cracking. It hurt so much. Maybe... maybe he should try to lift the bar? He wasn't going to be able to do it, but if he showed an effort, maybe she wouldn't hurt him?
And then a voice called. "Whipcrack! Half an hour and you're on! What the hey!"
"Oh dog doo, I lost track of time. All right, let me box this guy up for travel tonight and I'll be right over."
Box him up? Discord didn't like the sound of that. He whimpered and shrank back.
It didn't do him any good. Whipcrack's magic lifted him and stuffed him into a small cage, just like the one he'd been brought here in, possibly the same one in fact. And with the bindings on him, he had no hope of undoing the hinges this time.
Bored, and trapped, he drifted in and out of pain-wracked sleep, woken frequently by hunger and the aches all over his body, and lulled back by physical weakness and boredom. Later, a commotion woke him fully. It was dark outside, the moon was high, and despite this being the time that normally everything was quiet, the menagerie was full of earth pony workers, loading cages onto carts. One of them opened Discord's larger cage, picked up the small cage he was actually in, and hoisted it onto a cart, then yoked himself and pulled it out.
On the short trip from the menagerie tent to a wagon, Discord could see activity all around. Ponies of all races, some of them still in performer makeup, were helping to box things up and put them into wagons, or undo and take down tents. Belatedly he remembered Faun Whisper saying something about the circus moving on tonight.
He wondered if the new location would be easier to escape from. He wondered if he was even willing to try. He hurt so very much, and he'd been so scared this morning when Whipcrack had started throwing him around and he'd been sure she would kill him. He wanted to be free, but was an escape attempt worth the price he'd pay if he failed?
He was left in the wagon all night, though many of the other animals were removed. He hadn't had any food all day yesterday, and there was no water in the wagon, so by now he was extremely thirsty.
When they finally got around to moving him, he saw that there were no stone tiles on this arena; the circus tents were all set up on bare grass. His cage had been directly set on the tiles, before, which made him optimistic that there would be grass in it now. But when they dumped him into the large cage, it was obviously a new one, with a bottom. It didn't have the grid, but the bars were much narrower, too narrow for him to squeeze through. There was a full water trough, and an empty food trough. What was worse, other animals were being fed.
It was nearly noon before Whipcrack appeared. "Well, now, let's see how you behave now that you've had some time to go hungry." She pulled him out of the cage and presented him with the bar again. "Lift, Mixup."
So she wasn't even going to feed him until he did it? Discord closed his eyes, feeling helpless. He didn't have a choice, did he? She was going to beat him if he didn't do it, and starve him.
Sullenly, he curled his tail around the bar and lifted it. He still ached, but not as badly as he did yesterday, so it wasn't quite as impossible as it had been then.
"There we go," Whipcrack said approvingly. "Was that so hard?" She levitated an apple out of her saddlebag, put it in her hoof, and hoofed it to him. Discord tried to grab at it with his paws, but the ropes that bound them to the board on his back made it so he couldn't reach. He stuck his tongue out instead and coiled it around the apple, pulling it into his mouth. As he chewed and swallowed, Whipcrack petted him with her hoof, and as much as he wanted to find it degrading to having her stroke his mane like he was actually an animal as she thought... no one had touched him with any semblance of kindness since his mother had disappeared. He knew Whipcrack wasn't kind, he knew she was petting him because she was happy that he was obeying her and not out of affection... but it didn't matter. It still felt good.
"I want you performing in tomorrow's show," she said. "Let's do a few more tail lifts, and then I'll take those restraints off you and have you practice balance. We've got a lot of work ahead of us, and I've got other animals I need to deal with today too, so be cooperative and you'll get toys to play with. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
His ears perked up. Toys? The worst part of his captivity was the utter boredom. Yes, he would very much like something to play with. Discord decided then to cooperate to the best of his ability... this time. Let her think she'd cowed him into submission, do the tricks she wanted to get the reward, bide his time and take every opportunity to scout out what this new location looked like so he could quickly get away if he did find a chance to escape.
So he did the tail lifts, and got more food. Then she had him practice balancing on the ball again. It was easy enough until she wanted him to walk on the ball, making it roll beneath him. He had several spills, which hurt a lot given how badly he ached from the beating yesterday, but Whipcrack was pretending to be nice now, as long as he was cooperating and trying to do as she said. She kept giving him small food rewards, the little cookies, and when he managed to keep the ball rolling under his feet for more than a few seconds, she gave him more fruit. Then there was juggling practice. He could still only manage two balls.
When Whipcrack put him back in the cage, it was with several of the balls. They were a little bit bouncy, and too big to push through the bars of the cage, so he could bounce them against the cage bars, though the results were unpredictable. He was left without his restraints aside from bindings holding his wings down, free to play with the balls, though there were workers all over the menagerie and Whipcrack herself working with other animals at the far end, so he didn't really have an opportunity to try to escape. A worker brought him more slops – less appetizing than they could have been after cookies and fruit, but after a day without food, he was more than hungry enough to devour them all. And then he played – bouncing balls all over his cage and catching them again, practicing juggling on his own because it was something he'd wanted to be able to do before they started demanding he do it, balancing balls on his nose or the tip of his tail.
There was more training later, in the late afternoon. Whipcrack drilled him on the ball balancing until he could keep it up more or less indefinitely, and rewarded him with grapes – much smaller than an apple, but much sweeter and tastier. She had him practice juggling while on the ball. He dropped balls far more often than he caught them again, but Whipcrack would just lift the ball and toss it back to him. By the time she was called away for the start of the show that evening, Discord was actually capable of juggling one ball, slowly and carefully, while balancing on the bigger ball.
Two earth ponies put him back in his restraints. Discord was too worn out to try to resist them. At least today had had a modicum of fun to it, for the first time since his captivity – the training was hard work, but balancing on a ball while juggling was absurd and entertaining enough that Discord was enjoying doing it. He wasn't given an evening meal, but he didn't really miss it, with all the treats he'd been given during training.
The restraints were annoying, and difficult to sleep in, but he was tired enough to manage it.
Training the next day began in the early morning, before breakfast. Discord didn't like being woken so early, but when Whipcrack started removing the restraints, he wiggled with excitement. That, at least, he was looking forward to.
He got up to juggling three objects on solid ground, two if he was walking on the ball. It was getting easier and easier to do this; keeping his balance on the ball was just a matter of shuffling his hind feet rather than ever fully removing them, while swishing his tail to provide a counterbalance. He also demonstrated to Whipcrack that he'd become proficient at balancing a ball on his nose. For that, he got a whole pawful of grapes.
Breakfast, after training, wasn't even slops – it was a light meal of hay. Hay was boring, and Discord didn't like it much, but he could put up with it if he was getting so many treats during training. There was more training after breakfast, and then playtime in his cage, with no restraints, and then yet more training. Discord was getting bored with simply walking on a ball, and on his own initiative, stepped down off the ball, lifted it with his tail, tossed it, bounced it off the back of his head, and when it landed, jumped on top of it and started walking again, this time with exaggerated arm motions intended to convey the swagger of a rooster, or a stallion who was particularly full of himself. Whipcrack actually laughed at that one.
In the afternoon, she presented him with a garment. Discord studied it, puzzled. It really wasn't much of a garment at all – it was more like a sequined tube sock large enough to accommodate his barrel, attached to a small cape. Bemused, Discord let her put it on him.
"We're going to run through routines for tonight, because you're going to be performing," Whipcrack said. "Let's make sure you've got this down cold. If you do well, I won't put the board on you tonight, though you'll have to wear mittens if I do that."
Discord wasn't sure he knew what mittens were, but he knew he liked the idea of not wearing the board. So he wore the silly garment, even though it itched, and he practiced doing the same tricks in the same order, over and over, as Whipcrack told him to do, even though that was boring him. He wanted to do well at whatever it was he was expected to do so he wouldn't have to sleep with the board on.
And then it was showtime.
He was brought to another tent on a flatbed cart, secured to it by a leash but not caged or bound otherwise. This tent was positively huge; in height and width it dominated the arena. Inside, he could hear hooves stomping, and it sounded like hundreds of them.
Whipcrack undid his leash from the cart and tugged him down. "Now, remember, Mixup," she said. "The boss paid a lot of money for you; this is your chance to start making it back."
This had the opposite effect of what she was probably going for. He didn't have to buy me, Discord thought sullenly. Maybe I don't want him to make his money back. Maybe I'm angry that he ruined my life by buying me. He considered screwing this up spectacularly in order to embarrass Whipcrack.
But when he was brought out onto the stage, under the bright lights, and he saw the masses of ponies in the audience, the thought fled. His first reaction was fear – being surrounded by ponies gawking at him had never been particularly good for him in the past. But as his eyes adapted and he was able to see better, he could see that they were looking at him, not with disgust, but with wonderment.
"Presenting!" Thunder Roll, the fat pegasus who seemed to own this circus, stood off to the side, shouting in a positively booming voice. "For the first time performing ever, fillies and gentlecolts, you will be the first to see this amazing freak of nature and his astonishing abilities! Let's hear it for Mixup, the draconequus!" Ponies stomped their hooves, their eyes radiant as they gazed at Discord, and despite the fact that Thunder Roll's words were somewhat insulting, Discord found that something inside him was unfurling that he'd never even known was there before. They were all looking at him, not with hate and fear, but with anticipation and interest.
"A draconequus, as you fine folks may know, is a nearly extinct kind of creature, a bizarre mixed-up hybrid of a dozen different animals. Note the head like a pony's! The tail like a dragon's! Note the lizard leg, the goat leg, the lion leg and the griffin leg!" Thunder Roll pointed with his hoof at Discord's various features, and Discord stood up on his hind legs to give them a better look, then strutted around a bit on the stage. The crowd went wild, stomping so hard the wooden bleachers they were standing in seemed likely to break. "Fillies and gentlecolts, it is our pleasure here at Yellowtail and Thunder's Amazing Circus to bring you this one-of-a-kind spectacle, a creature never before viewed by pony eyes... and tonight, he'll perform for you!" More stomping. Discord grinned, showing off his teeth. This led to some shrieks, but they seemed to be shrieks of excitement more than fear.
He started with the routine he'd practiced with Whipcrack all afternoon. There were more cheers and hoofstomping for his juggling and ball-walking, but Discord quickly got bored. He flipped himself upside down, attempting to juggle with his tail and dragon leg while walking on the ball with his arms, to the delight of the crowd. Whipcrack, off stage where he could see her but the audience couldn't, glared at him, but that didn't stop him. Who was the performer here, Whipcrack or Discord?
Of course, not having practiced that particular maneuver at all, it wasn't long before he slipped and fell. The crowd gasped, and Whipcrack looked simultaneously horrified and furious. Thunder Roll looked angry as well. Acting mostly on instinct, Discord looked out at the crowd with a comically exaggerated expression of bewilderment and pout of disappointment. It did the trick; they started laughing, some of them stomping as well. He leapt to his feet, springing up easily, and used his tail to toss two of the three juggling balls he'd lost up into the air. Then he turned toward the crowd and mimed an expression to indicate that he'd suddenly had an idea, eyebrows raised, eyes wide and mouth open. More laughter, and yet more when he picked up the ball he'd been walking on with his tail, and tossed it into the juggling mix.
He juggled the giant ball and the two smaller ones for a minute or two, did his "idea" expression again... and attempted to walk on the third juggling ball. Of course it didn't work; there was no space for both feet. His attempts brought hilarity to the crowd as he spun around in circles, or rolled forward rapidly, tail flailing as if he was trying to catch his balance, still juggling. At one point the large ball fell on his nose, and he kept his head in the air, keeping the ball wobbling precariously, perched between his muzzle and his small horns. Then he tossed it up with his muzzle, tossed all three of the smaller balls into the air, started juggling them, and timed a leap to coincide with one of the larger ball's down-bounces, using his tail slapping against the ground to give him more force. He landed on the ball, still juggling, and walked it around in a circle on the stage one more time, before jumping off it, tossing the three juggling balls in a bucket, and bowing to the crowd.
Thunderous stomping, big grins, shining eyes, hoots and hollers. Discord looked around the applauding crowd, his own eyes wide and his own grin huge. For the first time in his life, ponies were cheering him, looking at him with approval, praising him. It was the first time in his life any large group had approved of him; his mother and brothers had laughed at his antics sometimes, but most of the other draconequui in the clan had ignored him or rolled their eyes.
This was wonderful. This almost made everything else worth it. He still wanted his freedom, he still hated Whipcrack for killing River and for all the beatings... but maybe he wasn't going to try to escape again right away. Maybe he'd work on trying to prove to Whipcrack that he was sapient, and then maybe he could be a performer like the ponies were, free to come and go as they pleased, eat what they want, and train and work for the love of performing, not the fear of beatings. Because the truth was, they loved him out there, they were calling for more, and he never wanted to give this feeling up. Ever.
Discord trotted obediently off stage to Whipcrack when she called him, expecting treats. She shook her head, a look of confusion on her face. "I have no idea how you did any of that, and I don't know whether to whip you for going off-script, or give you fresh greens and a cupcake for your performance. That was amazing. Also terrifying. I'm going to have to find some way to keep you from using completely untried, unpracticed moves in your performance."
He grinned at her, and let his tongue loll out like a dog's, wagging his tail. If she was so convinced he was an animal, maybe miming an actual animal would get a positive reaction out of her. Whipcrack sighed. "Oh, all right. You can have a treat."
The treat was neither fresh greens nor a cupcake. It was a cluster of grapes. Discord would have preferred the cupcake, but this was acceptable, and besides, the excitement of performing was honestly as much of a treat as he really needed, not that he was ever going to turn down food.
Mittens turned out to be garments that went over his paws, made of thick, heavy fabric he couldn't seem to claw through, where all of his digits except his thumb were in one part of the garment and a smaller part enclosed his thumb, allowing it to move independently but forcing the rest of his digits together. It was similar to the wires in effect, though more comfortable. Rope was used to tie the mittens to his wrists, and he probably could have used his teeth to tear the rope off, but he didn't want them to think he had to wear the more restrictive and uncomfortable wooden restraint again. When he went to sleep in his cage that night, the mittens were actually comfortable surfaces to rest his head on, and if he had any difficulty sleeping, it wasn't due to pain or discomfort nearly as much as it was due to the memory of the crowds stomping and shouting for him.
For the first time since he was taken captive, Discord was actually happy.