The next several days were a blur of happiness. Discord couldn't get enough of performing. He was actually glad to learn new tricks from Whipcrack; he wished she'd just explain the whole thing, in words, rather than giving it to him bit by bit because she thought she was training an animal and not teaching a talking creature, but at least she moved fast enough that he'd get to practice three or four new tricks every day... and then show them off at night. Whipcrack would get irritated with him for performing tricks that weren't part of the routine once he was on stage, but he always pulled it off and the crowd always clapped and cheered and if anything did go wrong Discord was always able to roll with it and make it look like part of the show.
There were fewer treats; Whipcrack had apparently figured out that Discord was motivated to learn new tricks and that he was good at them, so there were only treats when he succeeded at pulling off the entire sequence for the trick she was teaching him, not at each step of the way. This was unfortunate, because the slops they fed him were less bearable than before now that he'd gotten used to eating treats. He'd spent too long going hungry to turn his nose up at food, so he ate it, but slowly and reluctantly. Maybe if he kept bringing in the crowds, they would start to feed him better food? He would stare longingly at thrown-out snack food from the performances like circus peanuts (which weren't peanuts, and he wasn't sure why they were called that) and candied apples and popcorn. Oh, how he missed popcorn.
He learned that the days went in a cycle, like the cycle of day and night except that it was completely arbitrary and made up by ponies, and that this cycle controlled things like market days, answering a question he'd been wondering about for years. Ponies talked about things like getting provisions on market days. Apparently different towns had different market days. The circus packed up and moved to another town every so often, usually at the end of one of those cycles, which they called a "week". Occasionally they would have to pack up and leave in the middle of the week, usually in the middle of the night in a big hurry. Discord got the impression that this might involve money in some way, but wasn't sure how, because none of the ponies would talk about it in detail.
At first he was excited to be traveling to so many new places. But the truth was... they were all the same. He wasn't allowed out of the narrow confines of the animal cages, the trainers' tent, and the Big Top, which was the name for the place where he did his performances. If there were sights to see, he wasn't able to see them. The audiences were all the same – all ponies, usually either mostly earth ponies or mostly unicorns. The unicorns tended to wear more clothes. Discord would peer out through a gap in the backstage of the tent to look at the audiences and gauge them while they were still watching the other performers. Pegasi, when they did show up, were generally completely unimpressed with the acrobats. But they still laughed at his performances. So, didn't that mean that he should get even better treatment than the acrobats, because his show appealed to all three kinds of pony, while the acrobats could only interest the earthbound pony tribes?
It didn't work that way. Acrobats got to work with each other to set their own routines, and he saw them eating delicious things, like pies and cheese. They talked about receiving bits, and spending them in town. Discord got bad food for his meals, a hard floor to sleep on, a harness holding down his wings and mittens wired to his hands every time he wasn't practicing or performing. Even the treats he received weren't nearly as good as what he could see the pony performers getting.
The only thing that made up for any of it was the applause.
Ponies staring at him in astonishment and wonder! Ponies whooping and hollering as he pulled off particularly amazing stunts! Ponies laughing as he played the fool for them, making exaggerated expressions and doing silly things to entertain them, before he switched back to doing something that would make them gasp in awe... this was it. This was all he wanted out of life. If they would only recognize that he wasn't an animal, and start treating him like they treated the other ponies in the troupe, and let him sleep with blankets or something, and let him go into town and buy things there and all the other things the ponies got to do, and talk to him, not at him... okay, so he actually had quite a number of things he wanted that he wasn't getting, but they all boiled down to the same thing.
He couldn't put up with being treated like an animal forever. But as long as he had some hope that maybe they would figure it out, maybe they would finally understand him and treat him as a respected and valuable performer and not a trained animal, he was willing to try to stick it out and not try to escape again, because nothing had ever been as wonderful as the crowds stomping their hooves and shouting with happiness at him. All of their adulation, their wonder, their attention, for him. Discord would put up with quite a lot, for that.
His routines got longer. Discord didn't mind; the opportunity to perform longer thrilled him. Apparently some sort of negotiation with the acrobats had gone badly; now there were two fewer of them performing, and their routine was distinctly shorter. This supported Discord's belief that he was more important than the acrobats. Why, he could do most of their tricks himself – the ones that didn't involve having a partner, anyway. He even demonstrated to Whipcrack one day in practice, by running off as soon as her back was turned, climbing up onto the high wire, and crossing it on all fours, since he couldn't use his magic to make his goat hoof behave like his dragon claw, and while goat hooves were great for climbing mountains, they weren't all that for tightrope walking. The cleft helped, but claws and digits worked a lot better, and he had those on three paws. He fell off a couple of times – it was his first time tightrope walking, after all – but caught himself with his tail, swung around the wire, and landed back on it, making it look like he'd meant to do that.
To his surprise, Whipcrack was angry with him. "Don't do that again!" she shouted, brandishing her whip at him and making him shrink back with fear. "Do not leave the training area unless you're being brought on a leash! Do you understand?"
"Of course he doesn't," Faun Whisper said to her, patronizingly. Most of the time, unicorns were patronizing to earth ponies, but Whisper was patronizing to Whipcrack most of the time. "My dear Whipcrack, if he was smart enough to understand what you're saying to him, he'd be too smart for us to use. We'd have to set him free. The laws against enslaving a sapient being are very strict."
"I know that," Whipcrack scowled.
"Well, then you should know that yelling at him and waving your whip around is worthless! He has no idea what he did wrong. For all he knows, you're angry at him for getting down off the tightrope."
While this was untrue, given that Discord was sapient and did understand everything Whipcrack had said, Whisper was handing Discord a "get out of punishment free" card, and Discord took it, lolling his mouth open, panting like a dog, and wagging the fuzzy tip of his tail, impersonating a clueless dog who only wants to please its masters.
Whipcrack scowled. "He understands a lot more than you give him credit for," she said sharply.
"Oh, he's a very intelligent animal, there's no doubt about it. He's like one of the monkeys – he's curious and he wants to play and try new things. You should praise him for that, not threaten to punish him. He just spontaneously taught himself a new trick!"
"Yes, but it's a useless one. Mr. Thunder will never let an animal act intrude on the acrobats' territory. Mixup's never going to get to perform on the high wire."
"But now you know he can. And don't be so sure about Mr. Thunder. An animal who can walk a tightrope might even impress a pegasus audience."
"I can't train him to do tightrope acts. I don't know anything about the tightrope."
"Well, I'd be happy to take training him off your hooves, if you like. At his level of intelligence, I think he'd respond better to an animal speaker or animal specialist, anyway."
"You're no animal speaker, Whisper. Don't get too big for your britches."
"No, I'm not, it's true. But I know how to handle intelligent animals. Your talents are better served training bears and lions and that sort."
Whipcrack scowled even harder. "Oh, because I'm not an earth pony, I can't handle myself around animals? What's this bucking mark mean, then, that I like to stand on chairs and wave ribbons around?"
"I don't doubt your talent," Whisper said, his tone so smooth it was almost greasy. "I don't, however, think that this draconequus is an appropriate fit for the techniques you're skilled in. I'm willing to try training him in tightrope walking and other skills that would impress Mr. Thunder, if you aren't."
Whipcrack leaned forward, her muzzle almost touching Whisper's. "Mr. Thunder gave Mixup to me to train. Not you. Now, unless you have some race-based objection to unicorns being animal trainers, we're done here. Come on, Mixup."
Discord did not come on. The thought occurred to him that if he blatantly disobeyed Whipcrack in front of Whisper and pretended he didn't understand her orders, maybe Whisper would talk to Mr. Thunder to get the right to train Discord. It seemed to Discord that he'd have better luck getting the fact that he was sapient through to a trainer who already believed him to be an extraordinarily intelligent animal who should be managed with praise rather than punishment. So he just sat there, tongue still lolling.
"Oh, for crying out loud," Whipcrack snapped. "Come on, Mixup." Her magic pulled at him. Discord yelped and scrabbled, trying to resist the pull, but it was of course useless.
Discord didn't stop taking opportunities to practice on the acrobats' equipment every chance he got. If there was some kind of dispute with the acrobats, let Mr. Thunder replace their act with his. The more valuable he was, Discord thought, the more likely he'd be able to get what he wanted. Slavery was illegal, according to Faun Whisper, so as soon as he proved he was intelligent, they'd have to let him have the same amount of freedom that other performers did. Whipcrack didn't appreciate his attempts, and yelled at him and sometimes even used her magic to yank him down off the ladder or high wire, but he didn't stop. All he needed was for someone to be impressed by him and tell Thunder Roll, and he was sure he'd be allowed to replace the acrobats entirely.
It didn't happen that way. A few weeks after his act was extended, it was abruptly shortened again, Whipcrack giving him the signal to wind things up and make his bows before he was done with his routine. Discord could have tied things up with a flourish – he was adaptable, and he could change his routine on the fly – but he was very, very angry that he wasn't being given the amount of performance time that he'd come to expect. Had they brought in a new act, or hired more acrobats? Who cared? Discord was a star, his act got the house stomping harder than most other acts did, and he deserved better treatment than this.
So he ignored the signal. He continued his routine, drinking in the attention, the gasps of awe and the riotous laughter. This gave him little attention to spare for Whipcrack, but the glimpses he caught of her were gratifying. She looked so angry she practically had steam coming out her ears. Again and again she gave him the signal, and again and again he ignored her. She couldn't use her magic to pull him off stage; that would give away that he wasn't obeying her, and she'd be humiliated in front of the entire audience.
When he was done performing his routine, not when Whipcrack thought he should get off the stage, he bowed, accepted the applause, and finally walked off the stage on his hind legs, all the while continuing to bow as he headed to the stage exit. As he came into the backstage area, he looked up at Whipcrack... to see seething fury in her face, still.
"You saw my signal. You know what that means," she growled. "You ignored me!" Her magic yanked him, hard. He yelped as she stripped him with magic without waiting for him to remove his own costume, and then continued to drag him back to his cage.
But they loved me! Discord thought, furiously, trying helplessly to balk as Whipcrack dragged him. I did my job! I entertained the audience! This isn't fair!
Once he was in the menagerie, the whip came out. "How dare you defy me!" she snarled. "You know how important the 'end performance' signal is. You made me look like a fool in front of Mr. Thunder – a fool or someone deliberately trying to upstage his new stage magician act!" She punctuated her words with blows from the whip, as Discord screamed and tried to pull free. "When I give the signal to stop, you stop! Do you hear me?"
Even through the pain, he wondered why she always said things like "do you understand" or "do you hear me", when she couldn't manage to interpret his frantic cries of "yes" as words at all. If he was a dumb animal, why was she even asking him anything? Was she expecting a response? She usually beat him harder when she said it, the whip slashes more vicious as the words came out of her mouth.
Once she was done, she bound him with the board and the wires around his digits, and threw him in his cage – literally, and he couldn't brace himself or twist his body with the board on. He landed half on his back, half on his left side, with a wrenching pain in his left shoulder. Discord cried out, but Whipcrack ignored him, leaving him there to suffer.
Later that evening, the circus veterinarian came by to bandage his wounds and apply antiseptic, though nothing for the pain. Discord had just managed to get to sleep, despite the pain; it was infuriating that they woke him up and he'd have to go through the whole process of fighting his way toward sleep to escape the pain, again.
He made a decision. From now on, all his efforts would go toward trying to master pony speech. If he could prove that he could talk, all of this would end, and he'd be allowed to perform as a free agent, like a pony. All he had to do was re-learn how to make sounds that ponies could interpret as being language. How hard could it be?
When he wasn't practicing routines, he was practicing speech.
The draconequine language he'd grown up speaking was useless to him now. Let it go. He was fairly sure he wasn't pronouncing anything correctly anyway. Too many of his sounds came out as various animal noises. His fang and his forked tongue prevented him from properly making any sounds that needed his lips to go together or his tongue to go in one specific place in his mouth.
Discord had never spoken pony fluently. He'd learned the language as a thing he heard, not a thing he communicated in. For years he'd had no one to talk to but Little Sister, Fire, and himself. Picking up the pony language so he could understand what the ponies said was important for staying safe and finding out where they put the best food, but speaking in it was pointless when they wouldn't acknowledge that what he was saying was even speech, so he hadn't bothered to try. Also, he'd been in denial as to how badly his transformation had mangled his ability to speak at all.
Now he had to confront it. More than half the sounds ponies made, he couldn't. Ponies couldn't make most of the sounds he could, either, but that wasn't relevant when he was trying to get them to understand him.
So he practiced. He repeated what he heard ponies say, as closely as he could. He didn't do it with Whipcrack; he didn't want her to know he was practicing speech, not until he was good enough at it that no pony could possibly deny that he was speaking. But he practiced with the ponies who worked in the menagerie, bringing food and water and cleaning cages. Occasionally one of them would say jokingly that it sounded "just like he's talking," or point out that he was mimicking them. A few of them would try to get him to say crude words. Discord knew which words were considered uncouth and disgusting by ponies; he didn't try mimicking those. His mother had always impressed on him the need to avoid crude language, so that he wouldn't seem uneducated and wild. When the ponies finally did figure out he was talking, he didn't want their first exposure to his speech to be curse words and epithets.
Discord wasn't good at telling time, but an entire season passed; it grew cold outside the menagerie, and then cold inside as well, and the ponies brought heated blankets or extra straw to the various animals, depending on how valuable they were and whether they were able to use a blanket. Discord got a blanket, which he was grateful for; one of the things that infuriated him about being treated like an animal was that he didn't get to have anything soft to sleep on. Outside the tents, there was often snow on the ground, and the ponies who came to his performances came wearing snow boots and scarves, sometimes hats and winter coats as well. There was a special performance for an event called the Winter Moon Festival, which lasted longer than most of the other performances. And then the cold got worse.
Even with the blankets, Discord did badly with the bitter winter chill. He wasn't in a warm underground burrow or a cave with a roaring fire and a thick layer of fallen leaves to burrow into; he was kept in a cage, with open bars that let the drafty air in, inside a tent. There was a large magical heater in the center of the tent to keep the tent from freezing, but it didn't put out enough heat to make Discord comfortable. His body was stiff and aching every day when he woke up, the moreso if he was forced to sleep with the board on. He had to exercise as soon as he was awake, even before breakfast, or the stiffness would plague him even while Whipcrack was training him, and she wasn't forgiving of mistakes he made because the cold made him less flexible and less agile than normal. And the cold slops that were his breakfast and dinner were less bearable than they'd been when the temperature was moderate.
He missed warm food. Hot buttered popcorn, roasted fruit, squash heated over Fire until its outside was just slightly charred and the inside was oh-so-soft... buttered roasted potatoes, crumbling in his mouth... warm soupy mixtures he made from heating grains and milk together until he got some sort of porridge, and mixing jam or spices or both into it, how it filled his belly with welcome heat that radiated down to his toes in the winter... He was better off now than he'd been his first winter, but every winter since then had been better than this. Discord got no warm food, no opportunity to play in the snow, no fire, no clothing to warm him aside from the sparkling sequined costumes he wore for his performances – which weren't warm anyway... All he got was one rough blanket that was heated magically every night by a pony whose sole job appeared to be casting heat spells. it wasn't even a very comfortable blanket, though it was better than the plain hard wood that had been all he'd had before.
So he was very, very eager to get to the point where ponies could understand that he was sapient and deserved to have a bed in a tent, and warm food, and nice blankets, and everything else the ponies got.
"Hello!" he practiced, over and over, in the darkness of the menagerie at night. "Nice to meet you! I'm..." He blanked on his name, trying different things. Whatever pony word meant "discord" had never been said in his presence, so he didn't actually know his own name. Sometimes he tried "Fuchayoei", the draconequine word that represented his name. Sometimes he used the word for "mess" because he didn't know the word for "chaos" in pony either, or exactly what chaos meant anyway except that it meant his principle and also making messes. He used Whipcrack's name for him, "Mixup," sometimes, but he hated it. It made it sound like his body was the most important thing about him, and that his body was a mistake, that he hadn't been given the gifts of so many different animals by the power that changed him and brought out his magic but instead he was just put together wrong somehow.
So, skip that part. "Hello! Nice to meet you! I'm a draconequus! I have a pony head and a dragon body, but don't be scared, I don't breathe fire and I don't eat ponies! Actually I really like popcorn, does anyone have any?" And then if a pony said they had popcorn and gave him some, he would eat it and juggle with the box and then pretend he'd done a magic trick where the popcorn had magically disappeared. And all the ponies would laugh. He knew it.
One day, he decided, this was it. This was the day he would prove to all the ponies in the audience that he'd been a sapient being the whole time. Then the circus ponies would have no choice but to acknowledge him – according to Faun Whisper, the way they were treating him would be illegal if anyone knew he was intelligent.
By now he could almost do his tricks in his sleep. He didn't have a routine per se, the way the acrobats or the earth pony stage magician did. Discord had a repertoire of tricks he knew how to do, and he'd practice enough of them before the show that he could put together a performance out of them without difficulty, and then he'd make up his performance on the fly. Whipcrack couldn't make him stop doing it, because she didn't have any way of punishing him for going off-script that wouldn't more likely be interpreted by an animal as punishment for a good performance. As long as Discord didn't screw anything up, and as long as he got off stage when he got the signal to end his show, he was safe to do whatever he wanted.
Today, he danced on a large ball, upside down, using his talon and lion paw for "feet" while he juggled small, brightly colored sacks of rice with his hoof, dragon paw and tail. He performed acrobatic feats no pony could possibly manage on a series of raised bars of different heights, twisting his entire body through gaps a pony couldn't even fit through, let alone shimmy through as part of an acrobatic maneuver. And then, before going on to his next set of tricks, after he landed, he bowed to the audience.
"Hello!" he shouted. "Nice to meet you! I'm a draconequus!"
The crowd roared with laughter.
Discord blinked. What he'd said wasn't that funny. "I have a pony head and a dragon body... is you laugh why?" He knew the syntax on that last was wrong, but he couldn't keep going. They were laughing at him. Not at his entertaining comic antics that he deliberately put on to make them laugh. They were laughing at something he meant to be completely serious.
A foal in the first row said, "Daddy, it sounds like he's talking! Doesn't it sound just like he's talking?"
"I am talking!" Discord shouted, this time with some anger.
The father of the foal continued to laugh. "Yes, it does, honey! Oh, wow, imagine how hard they had to train him to do that!"
"Say something else!" another foal in the second row yelled. "Keep talking!"
"Listen, ponies! I can talk! This is talking! Don't laugh! I talking now!"
"He looks so serious!" a unicorn mare chortled. "Like he really thinks he's talking to us!"
"Oh, skies, I'm going to die laughing! This is too much!" a stallion gasped through fits of laughter.
Laughing at him. At his attempts to talk. At his best efforts to prove that he was worth just as much as a pony, that he deserved the same rights and treatment. It was just funny to them, because all they could hear was an animal mimicking something that sounded almost like pony speech.
Tears welled in Discord's eyes, but he wasn't going to let them see him cry. He didn't finish the routine; he ran straight for backstage.
Whipcrack chased after him as soon as she realized he'd left the stage. "Mixup! What are you doing? You've still got two more minutes! Your routine's not done!"
Discord ignored her. Rage boiled up in him. He raced at his top speed, on four legs, to the edge of the tent and tore at it, raking his claws through it.
"What are you doing? Stop this, now!" Whipcrack's voice was still far away. He was still out of range of her field. Maybe there was enough time. He used his teeth and all of his claws, including the dragon paw, ripping through the tent, too angry to consider the likelihood of recapture. All he wanted was to get away. They'd never accept him. They'd never treat him like a pony. The ponies who'd cheered and clopped their hooves and laughed at his slapstick had laughed just as hard at his attempt to talk and prove he was as smart as a pony. He hated them all and he never wanted to go back in the tent and perform for them, ever.
The hole was big enough. He launched himself through... directly into a large snowbank.
Discord shivered, and struggled to the top of the snowbank, but it was powdery and his legs were short. On four legs, he could stay on top of the snow some of the time, but if he sank, his whole body would be in the snow. On two legs, he was taller than the snowdrift, but there was too much weight on his two feet to keep him from sinking. Without his wings or magic, he couldn't figure out how to get through this.
And then Whipcrack's magic pulled him back.
After the beating, after the screaming, after being thrown back into his cage with the board bound to his back and his claws clipped short and blunt, Discord decided that he'd made the wrong call, months ago when he'd decided to cooperate for a chance to perform. Once he was free, he could learn to talk properly and then find another circus and join it voluntarily, not as an animal treated as property. But he couldn't stay here. He couldn't stand it anymore.
From this point on, he was once again going to take any opportunity to escape that looked as if it might succeed.
Winter gave way to spring, with a big festival that resulted in two performances a day for several days, and afterward there was no more snow on the ground and the weather had turned warmer. Discord tried to hold onto his blanket, but there was nowhere to hide it and growling at ponies who attempted to take it from him didn't do any good when they were unicorns and could hold him at bay with magic. Why did they have to take his blanket, though? There was no good reason they couldn't have let him keep it, just because it was warmer now and he didn't need it to keep from freezing to death. It just reinforced Discord's determination to escape.
He continued performing, because he had to hide from Whipcrack how much he wanted to get away, and because it was still the only fun he got to have. A lot of the joy of it had been taken away when he'd realized the ponies in the audience saw him as a dumb animal just the same as the ponies in the circus did, but it was still fun to get applauded, even if he had less respect for the ones giving him the applause, now. When he didn't challenge Whipcrack or do anything other than learn the tricks she wanted him to learn and then use them in his performance the way she wanted him to, she didn't leave the board on his back when he slept. He was more agile when he didn't have to sleep with it, and she wanted him to be agile.
That was going to be her mistake.
He needed a wire for a lockpick. They no longer wired his fingers together; they used rope to fasten the mittens to his wrists. Finding a piece of wire without Whipcrack noticing what he was doing was going to be challenging. He kept his eyes open. Be patient, and watchful. Something was going to turn up, eventually. He was sure of it.
But when it finally happened, it came as an enormous surprise.
One of the ponies who worked in the menagerie was being fired. Strong words were said. The supervisor accused the pony in question of coming to work drunk – which, Discord knew for a fact, was an entirely accurate assessment. The stallion who'd been so accused responded with accusations of wage theft, and hours worked that had gone uncredited, and Mr. Thunder's abusive tirades, and how anypony would drink if they were forced to work in such conditions. A couple of the stallion's friends chimed in to offer their support for his statements. The manager threatened to fire them too. A mare from the group sneered at him. "What'll you do if we all quit? What then?" The manager, a unicorn, responded that it hardly took intelligence to take care of a bunch of filthy animals and that earth ponies were barely better than the creatures in the cages anyway. One of the earth ponies in the group being potentially fired grew enraged, and literally picked up animal poop and flung it at the manager.
The entire time, Discord watched avidly. A fight broke out, hooves exchanged blows, and by the time all was said and done, five ponies had lost their jobs and the manager had a broken jaw and was covered in animal waste. The manager saw Discord watching, and scowled at him. "What are you looking at? Filthy animal. Don't stare at me with those stupid eyes!"
For a moment Discord was very, very angry. This idiot couldn't even tell that his own species weren't animals, let alone that Discord wasn't either, and yet he dared called Discord stupid? Act like he was better than Discord, because he was a unicorn and could do magic, when if this collar was removed Discord's magic could run circles around his? All he'd need would be for the collar to fall off his neck, and he could show that unicorn who was the animal around here!
The manager doused the light in the menagerie, and Discord, trying to turn around to go lay down and sulk, felt something hard under his paw, between the mitten and the wooden floor. There was enough light trickling into the tent from the moon and the lamps outside that he could barely make out something that glinted, so he licked it, exploring it with his tongue.
What his tongue seemed to find was literally unbelievable, but when Discord picked it up and held it in the dim light, turning it this way and that so he could make it out better... it was exactly what it had felt like it was. It was the padlock on his collar. Still locked, but inexplicably not on his collar anymore.
Discord felt the collar. The padlock was, in fact, gone. Nothing had happened to the rings that the padlock usually held together; they were still solid. There was no possible explanation for how the padlock had just fallen off of him... except that possibly, he'd had another one of those magical flares from anger, like he'd had when River died. And he hadn't suffered backlash, because his magic had freed him from the collar.
That didn't really make sense, because he'd been so angry when River died. Being mad at a stupid unicorn insulting him didn't even compare. On the other hand... he remembered feeling like his magic was stiff, the last time he'd gotten his collar off, and then Whipcrack and Faun Whisper had argued with each other and it had felt like it was making his magic stronger, more responsive. Maybe when ponies argued, it fed his magic. It made sense. Discord nodded, remembering. Before mommy had – before all the draconequui had – that night, when it had all happened, the tribe leader had named him Discord, Principle of Chaos and Disharmony. That meant his magic liked chaos and disharmony, or was good at making it... he wasn't entirely sure he exactly remembered how Principles worked. But it made sense, that when ponies argued and created disharmony, it made his magic stronger. And with stronger magic, fed by that lengthy argument and then fight, maybe his desire to get free of his collar had been enough.
Whatever. Discord wasn't going to question it. He pulled the collar free and tossed it on the ground, then tore the mittens off with his teeth. He could have done that anytime, but without his magic to assist in an escape attempt, what would have been the point? Now he was free to escape.
But he was going to be careful this time. No running out into snowbanks (not that there should be any snow at this time, but the weather hadn't been predictable on his mountain, so he assumed it wasn't necessarily here either), no running into a floodlamp and being seen, no knocking anything over. No being caught by magical wards. He'd be watchful, and patient, and cautious, and look for opportunities. He wouldn't just race right out to freedom – that was how he'd been caught, practically every other time.
Slashing a hole in the tent so he could escape had never been the part that had gotten him caught, before, but he was careful with it anyway. With half of the animal caretaking staff on the evening shift fired, there might not be anyone guarding the menagerie tent, or there might be a whole horde of security ponies who'd come in response to the disturbance. Until he got a large enough hole in the tent that he could check it, Discord had no way of knowing. So he had to be careful, but also, not take too much time. Taking too much time had defeated him on some of his attempts.
Once he'd torn a hole large enough to look outside, Discord determined that the coast was relatively clear. There were huge spotlights everywhere, but he knew that from his previous attempts. As long as he stuck to the shadows he'd be fine. He squirmed out through the hole in the tent and slunk from patch of shadow to patch of shadow.
The layout of the circus tents wasn't the same as it had been in his first few attempts. There were more tents, and he had difficulty figuring out where the edge was. Eventually, though, he managed to slink his way to the outer border of the circus... which was caged in with a high wire fence.
With his magic, he made the harness that held his wings to his sides fall away, but his wings hurt once they were free; they could barely flap. He wasn't going to be able to fly over that fence. He could climb it, easily enough, but Discord wasn't going to fall into the exact same trap more than once. First he had to examine it magically to make sure it was safe.
His heart sank when he got a good look at it. The barrier was enchanted to send up an alert if anything living tried to cross it, animal or pony, and the spell had a lot of weird repetition to it. He couldn't be sure, but it looked to him like if he changed the obvious place in the spell where it said to send alerts so it would do something else, the repeating pieces might catch that the spell wasn't the same as it used to be, and trigger some other spell he couldn't see. Or some part of this spell that was hidden in the repeating pieces.
Well. There had to be a way to get through it – otherwise the alarm would be going off all day when shipments of food came in, not to mention customers. Either it was based on time, in which case the alarm spell would cease when a particular time came that outsiders were supposed to come in and vice versa, or there was a place where it didn't apply, for example a gate, where interchange with the outside could happen. If it was the gate, it would mean Discord could still escape under cover of darkness. If it was time, he'd have to watch the spell, and wait. So the smart thing to do was to look for a gate now, and if he found it but it was still a problem, then he'd have to wait it out.
He slunk through the circus. There were a lot of wagons which served essentially as buildings – wagons that performers lived in, wagons that stored food and props and costumes, wagons that during the day would provide medical treatment to injured performers or would be where the makeup artists did their work on the performers. It was easy for Discord to stay under wagons; he was small and could flatten his body to a degree that a pony foal could not and still be able to walk. The wheels weren't high, but that just made it a lot harder for ponies to see under the wagons. It was harder to get from wagon to wagon with the spotlights in place; he had to creep around the shadows, gauging when to move slowly so as to stay almost invisible and when to move quickly so no one would have time to notice him.
Eventually he found one gate. There might have been others, but he strongly suspected this was the only one he'd need. It was wide, and there were bright lights shining all over it, and a booth where a pony dozed, safe from the chilly night air of spring. Discord could smell the dog chained up outside the booth before he saw it, sleeping in the grass beside the booth. So, the gate was protected by a dog, and a guard. This must be the right gate.
Unfortunately the spell on the fence was active on the gate as well. Discord groaned to himself. Either the gate needed to be opened, or it needed a certain time of day, or it needed a unicorn to deactivate it. Any of those could be the trigger to take down the alarm, but none of them were likely to happen until morning, and Discord was very tired.
He considered his options. He could get some sleep and wait for the gate to open in the morning, hiding under a wagon. But if the wagon was moved during the day, or if they used dogs to search for him, he'd be caught. He could stay awake and wait for the gate to open, but if he did that, he'd be exhausted by the time the opportunity to escape actually did come up. Or he could go back to an unguarded portion of the fence, climb it as fast as possible, and rely on speed and his ability to disappear into a forest or nighttime shadows to escape the pursuit that would quickly follow.
Triggering an alarm and relying on speed to outrun it seemed entirely too similar to the things he'd done in the past that had resulted in him being recaptured and beaten. And he had his magic now. What if he made himself invisible? He examined himself carefully, the properties that allowed ponies to see him. What if he adjusted those properties so that light just went through him? And how would he check it?
Hmm. The makeup artists' wagon would have mirrors. It might also have makeup artists in it, but Discord could maybe cast a spell to check for ponies before he tried to go in it? He crept back to the makeup artists' wagon. Figuring out how to cast a scrying spell was hard, but making the wood floor of the wagon into strings he could just crawl through was easy, and once inside, he listened for the sound of breathing ponies. Nothing. The wagon smelled overwhelmingly of pony and of the tangy mineral scents of makeup, and there was no light at all, but if he shifted traits of bat-ness inherent in his wings to his ears, he could hear amazingly well. No sounds of life at all. The makeup artists must sleep somewhere else, then.
A switch activated the magical circuits that turned on the lamps. Discord climbed up on one of the stools and examined himself in the mirror. He saw himself in mirrors fairly often – backstage in the Big Top was full of them – but he was always wearing his costume then. Now he saw himself naked, clad only in his fur, feathers and scales, and he was scruffy. His fur seemed ungroomed. His pegasus wing, no longer bound to his side, badly needed a preening. The stubby little antler and goat horn that had replaced the two draconequus horns he'd been born with were duller in color than they looked under the Big Top's lights. Even the scales on his tail and dragon leg seemed less shiny than he thought they ought to be. Had the sequins on his costume dazzled him out of noticing that he looked downright sickly? Discord had seen himself in ponds and streams and dishes of water he'd filled so that he'd have a mirror to look at himself, many times, back when he was free, and he'd seen himself many times when he was sick with a cold or a fever or hunger. He knew what it meant when his fur and scales were dull and his wing was unkempt.
Misery made for an ill appearance, it seemed. Well, he was getting free tonight. Or tomorrow, more likely, but the point was, he wasn't going back to the circus. He just had to make sure he got out of here safely.
His attempts at invisibility didn't work as well as he'd hoped. Making himself transparent was fine until he moved; things behind him visibly looked warped when he changed position. Making light bend around him made him blind. So did making light jump straight through him as if he wasn't there. When he specified that light should go to his eyes but nowhere else, his golden eyes glittered in the emptiness, practically shining and very, very obvious.
Discord sighed. He didn't have all night to find a good invisibility spell, and he was very tired. The one where he made himself transparent would work if he was lying under a wagon sleeping. This wagon wasn't close enough to the gate, though. He had to get close enough to the gate that when the spell went down he could take advantage of it easily without having to cross through the circus in daylight again. So he crawled back down through the strings a spot on the floor was made of, let them revert back to wood that behaved like wood, and slunk back to the gate, where he took up position underneath one of the wagons that was closest. As soon as the gate opened in the morning, he'd be ready.
For now, he set his properties so that he was transparent, set the properties of the grass underneath him so that it was sun-warmed and dry rather than chilly and covered with dew, and curled up to sleep.
He woke to the sounds of ponies shouting. The sun was up, but the gate wasn't yet opened, so he shrank back under the wagon he was hiding beneath.
"Look inside everything! Look under everything!" Mr. Thunder was shouting. Discord smirked. Good luck with that. He might be noticed if he came out of his hiding spot and into the light, but as long as he stayed where he was and didn't move, he was completely indistinguishable from the shadows under the wagon. Sooner or later, they'd notice his wing harness had been removed, and then maybe they'd guess that he flew away, and they'd stop looking. They'd need to open the gates before the evening's performances, anyway.
He was almost flattered that it seemed like every pony in the circus had been drafted into trying to locate him. Was he really that valuable? If so, they should have treated him better – they had no one to blame but themselves.
Discord's stomach growled. Was it late enough into the morning that it was past his usual breakfast time? He wasn't good at telling time. Unless the sun was blatantly near the horizon or up at the top of the sky, all times seemed roughly similar to him – the sun was in the sky, someplace, or else it was nighttime so it wasn't. It made sense that it was after breakfast, though, because who would have discovered he was missing before the menagerie workers came in to feed the animals their morning meal?
Well, once he got free, he'd get food. He'd gone hungry before, for far worse reasons than escaping to freedom. He'd live through this.
For what seemed like quite a while, he saw ponies tear back and forth. The makeup artists' wagon, above him, rocked with the efforts of the ponies inside it to search every cabinet he could be hiding in. Multiple ponies peered under his wagon, and trotted off in frustration. Discord's grin got bigger. Ponies were no match for his magic. The only way they'd kept him penned up as long as they had was that they'd used that collar that took his magic away.
It was taking them an awfully long time to finish their search, though. Come on. Admit you can't find me and give up!
And then he heard the dogs.
Discord tensed, remembering being attacked by the dog at the Quench farm. How could he have possibly forgotten? Dogs operated on smell, not sight, and he'd done nothing to conceal his own smell.
Well, he wasn't as young and naïve as he'd been when the Quench dog had attacked him. He had ways to defend himself against dogs. Maybe re-pointer the dog's gravity sideways so the dog would fall away from him, or maybe replace the dogs' legness with swimming-fins-ness. Swimming fins wouldn't do a dog a whole lot of good if it tried to attack. Or replace the sharpness of its teeth with softness and squishiness.
When a dog found him, he growled at it, and slashed at its nose. It backed away, barking. "Good boy!" some pony Discord didn't recognize shouted. "Collin found him! He's under the wagon here!"
Discord peered out from under the wagon and saw a unicorn galloping up. "Get out of the way, Snoop," the unicorn shouted. "That thing can be dangerous! I'll pull it out with magic!"
Fury swept through Discord again. He remembered being captured by the three unicorns, who pinned him with their magic; remembered the dark blue unicorn, Mavis, who'd grabbed him for Whipcrack and handed him over chuckling like she didn't care at all about the beating he was destined to suffer. Remembered Whipcrack herself, and all the terrible things she'd used her magic to do to him.
The unicorn wanted to pit himself against Discord's magic? How would he like to try that without hornness?
Discord focused on the unicorn's horn for a moment. He couldn't make it dematerialize – he could only alter the properties of things, not make things cease to exist. But if he expanded his attention to the entire pony... the pony had the property of "unicornness". What if the pony had the property of "earth ponyness" instead?
First there was magic pulling at him – and then, a moment later, there wasn't.
"My – my – what happened to my magic? I can't feel – I can't feel my horn!" The stallion put his hoof to his head – and started screaming. "My horn! My horn's gone! My horn's gone! Stars help me!"
"What?" The earth pony with the dog stared at him in shock. "You're right, it's gone! Land almighty, this thing can do that?"
Suddenly the wave of ponies converging on Discord from the center of the circus started backing away. "It took Fire Tongue's horn!" "Did you see that?" "Will it take our horns too?" "Can it take wings?" "Oh, stars, I don't want to go anywhere near it!" "Me neither!" "Don't be a wuss, we're earth ponies. We've got no horns to take!" "Don't be reckless! What if it can take our legs? Or eyes?" "Land eternal, I'm not going near that thing!"
Thunder Roll's voice roared. "I don't care what it's done with its magic! If no one catches that draconequus you're all fired!"
An earth mare with a lasso galloped forward and tried to sling the lasso under the wagon. Discord backed up, out from under the wagon, and ran for the fence. It didn't matter if he triggered the alarm anymore, and if he pointed gravity at one of the trees on the other side of the fence he didn't even need his wings to be usable; he could just fall out of the fence's boundaries and land in the trees.
Ponies came at him. Some tried to use magic from a distance, yanking him. They couldn't hide themselves from him, though; Discord could see the magic, plain as day, like a thread coming from a glowing horn. He'd snap away hornness and make the pony an earth pony, or make their up into a down for a moment, so they'd fall into the air shrieking for a pony height or two before Discord moved his attention elsewhere so they'd fall back down. Pegasi dived at him. Discord snapped away one's wings, and she plowed into the ground with a scream. Reversing gravity on others made them plummet upward temporarily until they figured out how to readjust themselves. He turned one's wings into batpony wings rather than pegasus wings and he crashed while trying to figure out how to fly with them. After that the pegasi gave him a wide berth.
Earth ponies chased after him hardest and fastest, and he had to be quick about casting spells to stop them. Ground slick like ice. Ground liquid like water. Blades of grass sharp like glass. Grass on wheels, so when a pony landed on a patch of grass it skidded and rolled somewhere the pony wasn't expecting. Also the up-as-down trick worked as well on earth ponies as it did on unicorns.
Rather than climb the fence, when he reached it, he turned it into paper and tore right through it. It felt so good to use his magic again, after so long. While fighting back was initially terrifying, as the chase went on and his tactics scared more and more of the circus ponies off from pursuing him at all, he began to feel viciously accomplished. Strong, almost invincible. Take that, ponies! Treat me like an animal? Keep me in a cage? See how you like it when I turn your world upside down!
He bolted through a small copse of trees right outside the fence... and found himself on a street. It wasn't a thick forest like he was used to; it was a layer of trees planted literally about four trees deep before it gave way to overly settled territory. Discord had generally avoided being in the pony towns during the day; he'd snuck in at night to take food from their trash or break into buildings and steal supplies, like when he'd taken the materials he'd needed to fix Little Sister.
Ponies on the street gawked at him. Discord ran. Away from the circus, away from the staring ponies. Down the street. Maybe there was nothing up ahead but more streets, but if he kept running and running, sooner or later he'd get to somewhere that there were no ponies and they'd leave him alone. He didn't look back, though he could hear that there were still pursuers from the circus. When they got closer, he'd worry about it, since he'd probably have to look at them to cast spells to stop them, but right now he just wanted distance.
Something hit him in the backside, knocking him sideways. And then a searing, horrible, mind-destroying pain burned through his tail. Discord gasped, and then screamed. He twisted sideways, trying to see what was causing the pain.
There was a harpoon
There was a harpoon attached to a chain
A harpoon attached to a chain and it
It went through his tail
He had time to register only the horror of it, the utter wrongness of seeing a bolt go into his tail and a sharp, pointed head poking out of it and the blood everywhere, before someone or something yanked on the chain and he screamed. His body went flying, skidding across the ground, but he was barely aware of the motion through the nauseating, senses-blotting totality of the pain in his tail.
He couldn't summon up magic. He couldn't concentrate. He couldn't even see straight. When the dim shadows of ponies appeared in front of him, encroaching on his space, he snarled and snapped at them, but he couldn't snap horns away anymore, so nothing stopped them from grabbing him with magic and binding him, wrapping chains around his entire body.
What happened after that came back to him, when he dared to try to remember it at all, in a series of disconnected snapshots, so that he was never sure what order anything happened in, and didn't want to know badly enough to endure probing those memories. There was another beating, more savage than any except the one that had involved Whipcrack literally flinging him into things. There was a metal bolt with rings on both sides inserted into his tail, in a different location than the harpoon had been, which necessitated punching a second hole straight through his tail. There was a new collar that was nothing but the metal mesh, and a small blue flame burning his fur and the skin underneath it as a pony welded the collar's edges together, while other ponies held him tightly as he screamed and tried to thrash. There was a cuff welded around his dragon leg, which thankfully was impervious to heat or it would have been just as bad as the collar being welded around his neck.
It was days before he was healed enough to perform again – days that he spent with the board on his back, his paws unable to both touch his neck at the same time, shackled to his cage by the bolt in his tail and the cuff on his leg. They hadn't even left him enough range of motion that he could reach the edge of his cage to poop; he had no choice but to do it in his cage, not even in a corner but out in an open spot that was the farthest he could reach with the chains he wore. The first day after his escape attempt, they didn't even feed him – not that he could move well enough to eat much anyway. It hurt badly enough to drag himself over to the water trough.
He didn't feel at all recovered enough to perform when Whipcrack finally released him from his chains and took him to the training tent to practice for the evening, but he was too afraid to balk or challenge her. While she hadn't beaten him again after he was chained up, she did come in on a daily basis to scream at him about how he had almost gotten her fired and how dare he attack ponies with his magic. He'd learned that no one was permanently hurt – the wings and horns he'd zapped away had returned after they'd collared him, and the worst any of the ponies had suffered was broken bones, and after the beating he'd had more than his own fair share of those. But of course, the ponies had no sense of fairness and were far more upset about the brief moments when they'd been deprived of wings or horns than the months they'd spent depriving him of his freedom. So Whipcrack was in an especially bad mood, and Discord didn't dare cross her.
Performing hurt. They'd had healing spells cast on him, of course, but for some reason the spells were working more slowly and erratically than they had the first time he'd been beaten badly enough to need assistance from healing spells. Bones that had been formerly broken still ached, and every muscle protested the moves his routines required. Also, he was out of practice. The performance was lackluster, so Whipcrack didn't give him any treats for a reward afterward, and even the applause was weak.
Over the next several days, as he healed and got back into practice, Discord improved, but he was still bound to the board, fingers wired together, and leg and tail shackled into place, every time he was returned to his cage. The only time he had any physical freedom of motion at all was during training, practice and his performances. The applause wasn't enough to cut through the misery of the way he was being forced to live, particularly since Whipcrack had gotten very stingy with the rewards and he was hungry all the time, but he tried to be good, to demonstrate the behavior they wanted from him, because he wanted the level of freedom they'd given him before the escape attempt. Just to sleep without the board on his back keeping him from curling up would be wonderful. They could still shackle him, just take away the board and he'd be happy. Well, happier than he was now, anyway.
But they didn't do it. Days went by, and still Discord was restrained harshly every night. He learned to hold his need to eliminate in until they undid the board and unlocked the chains, so he could do his business somewhere other than the middle of his cage... which meant sometimes agony in his bladder, when he'd drunk too much water and it felt like it was going to burst, but better to hold it and deal with the pain than let it go and endure the smell. His cage was only washed once a week or so, and especially as the days grew warm, that wasn't enough. The smell of the menagerie in general was overwhelming, and he desperately longed for fresh air. If his own cage smelled like pee, where he couldn't escape it, that would be the worst thing ever.
The strangest thing was that during training and performances, Whipcrack treated him like she always had. She praised him when he did well, though that was rarer now – Discord found his concentration slipping, and a general exhaustion and weariness making it almost impossible for him to perform at his best or even be in top form during training. Whipcrack didn't beat him for these failures, but she would yell at him, or express disappointment, and either way she'd withhold treats. Still, it was normal in comparison to the overkill of the bindings. Every night without fail, and every day if he was taken from his cage and then returned to it during daylight, she or some other pony put the board on and fastened the shackles. It wasn't easy for them, either. The new collar seemed to absorb much more magic than the old one did – Discord didn't get any boost from arguments or chaos any more, and couldn't even feel his magic, most of the time, but on the other hand, unicorns couldn't seem to grab him as easily as they had once. Many times, Whipcrack had to rely on earth ponies to put Discord's bindings on him, because her magic started behaving erratically when it touched him. And yet, she never forgot or slipped up. The bindings went on every single time.
Spring gave way to summer. Discord used to love summer, when the days were long and warm and tasty food grew everywhere, even up on his mountain. He and Little Sister had played until night fell almost every night and then chased fireflies. Discord had even learned to catch them without being too rough with them and hurting them. He'd tried putting them in glass jars to light his cave without Fire, since Fire had often been too warm for summer days, but they stopped glowing and faded away unless he let them go.
This year, there was nothing to love about summer. He felt as if he was the one who was fading away from a lack of being let go. He was tired all the time, and his performances had become seriously lackluster. As long as he didn't outright disobey anything, Whipcrack didn't beat him, most of the time. Sometimes when he was especially exhausted and sluggish she'd lash him once to force him to wake up, the shock and pain startling him to full alertness, but nothing like what she'd give him if she thought he was being disobedient. The shouting and insults didn't bother him as long as she didn't hit him. It did bother him that she didn't give him treats, but not enough to give him the energy to perform the way she'd like.
He practiced talking because it was all he could do. With the board on his back and the shackles on his leg and tail, with the metal mesh collar draining his magic away so much that he couldn't even feel it and pony magic would fail on him more often than it worked, he knew he had no realistic hope of escape. Discord's only hope was somehow, someway, to convince some pony that he was intelligent, and that meant he had to try to learn the language. In the absence of any feedback, though, he couldn't tell if he was getting better or not. When he practiced a new trick, Whipcrack would tell him if it was wrong, and yell her explanation of what part of it was wrong at him. Once he got it right, she'd tell him so. But with speaking pony, all he knew was that no pony ever acknowledged that he was talking at all, and certainly, they never gave him any advice on what he should do to improve.
Every so often, he acted out despite the certainty of being beaten for it, throwing temper tantrums or deliberately ruining his own practice, because what else was there to do? Lying in his cage, unable to move very much, was so boring he wanted to die. Nothing to do but stare into nothing and daydream of things he was trying hard to believe he'd have the opportunity to see or do or experience sometime again in his life. He chewed on his paws, biting his claws down until he reached the veins within and drew blood, because he couldn't do anything else. He couldn't even reach his tail to suck on it or chew anymore. Food was tasteless, and even on the rare occasions when he got treats, he felt humiliated and sickened by the fact that he'd done something to please his captor, just because she had power over him, so they never tasted as good as they had when he hadn't hated Whipcrack quite so much.
So when he had the chance, he popped balls rather than standing on them, or broke the juggling toys he was given rather than juggling them, or chewed through ropes rather than swinging on them. He never risked doing these things during a performance – if he humiliated Whipcrack in front of the actual audience, he knew the pain he'd get would be unendurable. The beatings he got for doing it during practice and training were bad enough, and he always swore to himself that he wouldn't do it again, that it wasn't worth it... but he always found himself doing it again, because he was bored. There was so much destructive, restless energy in him from being confined for so long. It didn't last long – he couldn't channel the energy into performing better, because it actively resented him doing anything he was "supposed" to do, and there wasn't enough of it to keep him awake and alert much longer than he ever was. It just came from the fact that he was angry and he was bored and he hated everything, and when he saw an opportunity to take out his feelings on inanimate objects, he grabbed at it. In the moments when he was doing it, he didn't even care that there would be a beating later; either he didn't think of it at all, entirely focused on his impulse of the moment, or it seemed at that moment unimportant, or sometimes even something he was willingly drawing down on himself because he wanted to feel rebellious and bad and because a beating was at least interaction, something that could make him feel something besides the endless boredom.
He came down with a summer cold, coughing and sneezing. This didn't get him any better treatment or any freedom from having to perform. But it didn't go away. And he had mouth sores, and his body ached horribly all the time, and his teeth hurt.
Then one day he was practicing on a balance beam, when he felt suddenly dizzy and fell over. He wasn't high enough for a safety net and wasn't low enough not to bruise himself badly when he hit the floor. Whipcrack yelled at him to get up, and he tried, but another wave of dizziness had him going down to four legs. And then he threw up.
The vet was summoned. Discord lay on the floor, miserable. "What did you do to him this time?" the vet asked Whipcrack.
"He fell off the balance beam and then vomited," Whipcrack said, leaving out the part where she'd screamed at him and brandished her whip, threatening him. "I haven't punished him; he's obviously sick, or he ate something bad for him."
"Well, how am I supposed to know what's wrong with him if he's sick?" the vet said peevishly. "It's not like anyone ever mentioned dragonisses when I went to veterinary school. He's some weird chimera hybrid, how would I know how to treat him?"
"You fixed his broken bones," Whipcrack said.
"A skeleton's a skeleton. But different species need different things. Medicines that help a pony might kill a lion or a snake, and this creature's all kind of mixed up animals. You're going to need a specialist of some kind. There's nothing I can do here."
"And what if he dies, and Mr. Thunder is out his investment?"
"He's made plenty of money off the creature already. I'd say he's made back his investment. And there isn't anything I can do. I don't know what's safe to give him." The vet started walking out. "Make sure you keep him quarantined. Whatever he's got, you don't want him giving it to all the other animals."
So for a day, and maybe longer, Discord got an entire empty wagon to himself. It didn't do him any good; they didn't remove the board on his back, they still shackled his tail to a bolt on the floor, and he was too sick to do much of anything anyway. He spent most of the time drinking from his water trough, crawling over to a corner to expel the water from his other end, and trying to sleep in between. He had no realistic idea of how much time he'd been there when Whipcrack arrived with a new pony, an earth mare with a light blue coat, so pale it was almost white, and an orange mane. Despite himself he smiled at the color clash. Ponies got so annoyed with certain color combinations, but they were usually the prettiest ones.
The pony stopped dead on looking at him. "What have you been feeding this animal?" she asked.
"Pig slop," Whipcrack said.
"With meat in it?"
"No. He won't eat meat."
The pony glared at Whipcrack. "What do you mean he won't eat meat? This is a carnivore. Look at those talons! Those teeth!"
Whipcrack rolled her eyes. "Tell that to him. We haven't been able to get him to eat any form of meat. He threw a fit when we killed a fish he was keeping in his water trough, after refusing to eat any of the fish we gave him for food, so we tried other meats, but he turned everything down. So we feed him pig slop."
Discord's eyes burned, and he suddenly wanted to cry. He'd managed not to think about River for months.
The mare blinked. "What was a fish doing in his water trough?"
"We tossed fresh fish in with him. One was apparently not dead yet, and he put it in his water trough. I assumed he was saving it for later, but after he threw a tantrum over it being killed, Whisper said he suspected Mixup was trying to keep the fish as a pet – that maybe he'd been raised in a household with pet fish."
"And he had a tantrum over it being killed?"
"He had a less powerful restraint collar then. Sometimes his magic could get through. He attacked us all with his magic."
"Mm-hmm." The mare came over and knelt by Discord's side. Her tone, when she spoke to him, was gentle and maternal. "You don't feel at all well, do you, honey? No, not at all." She stroked his mane softly. "Could you open your mouth just a little for me? Let me see your teeth?" Discord obeyed. For that gentle touch and soft words, he'd have done anything. No one had treated him this kindly since his mother died. "Oh, what nice choppers you have. All mixed up, though, just like the rest of you! But I see so many meat-cutting teeth there. Why don't you want to eat your meat, honey? Don't you know you need it?"
Discord tried to speak to her, his voice rasping and weak. "Mommy said... against... way of harmony. 'S bad to kill animals and eat them."
The mare jerked back, an expression of startlement on his face. "Uh... does he do that often?"
"Start yowling at you when you talk to him like he thinks he's talking? Yes, yes, he does."
"Hmm." Her hoof pulled a satchel from around her neck and set it on the floor. "My name's Dr. Salvia. I'm a veterinarian, and an expert in exotic and unusual animals. I'm going to figure out how to treat your tummy bug, okay?"
"He can't understand you," Whipcrack said dismissively. "You don't need to tell him your credentials."
"Maybe I don't, but animals respond well to a soothing tone of voice that sounds confident." She carefully and gently examined his various body parts, asking him to show her a paw, now the other paw, now could she please see his back paw? and so forth. Weakly he proferred the requested paws. Dr. Salvia stroked his legs, and his tail, picking slightly at itching, flaking scales. "Lot of itch here, hmm? But the temperature's very different. And there's no bugs that ought to be able to get through dragon-like scales like these and not do terrible damage to other parts without the scales. So this isn't bugs, is it, honey?"
"What does an itch have to do with vomiting?"
"Everything." Salvia didn't look up from her examination. "What I'm seeing is consistent with severe protein deprivation. His joints seem badly swollen—"
"How would you know? They look fine to me. What are you comparing them to?"
"Griffin limbs. And goat limbs. I'm not just a vet; I do medicine for non-pony sapients, too. Besides, they're tender to the touch. He winces when I handle his joints, no matter how gentle I am or how little I'm actually moving them." She lifted his tail. "And look at this. Scales flaking off. Scales dull, or brittle, or cracked. Clumps of fur falling out. This – you said he's a draconequus?"
"Yeah, that's what Mr. Thunder said the ponies that sold him to us said he was."
"He's been sick for some time. You have to feed him protein. I was wrong about him being a carnivore – he's got too many teeth for chewing vegetation – but I think he's an obligate omnivore. He needs proteins; his body can't make all the ones he needs."
"Well, tell me how I can get him to eat meat then!"
"Bring me some. Let's see."
When Whipcrack came back with a plate of meats, Discord felt simultaneously more nauseous, and very hungry. The smell of meat was appetizing, even though he refused to eat it, but he felt too sick for the feeling of hunger itself to be bearable. He turned his head away.
Dr. Salvia gently offered him different meats. "Chicken? Do you like chicken? No, not a fan of chicken. Here's turkey! You might like that! No, not turkey? Well, what about pork?" and so forth. Discord turned up his nose at all of them, and finally, reached out and pushed the plate away.
"Stop being a brat, Mixup," Whipcrack snapped. "The doctor's trying to help you."
"Does he drink milk?"
Whipcrack frowned. "Who'd waste milk on the pigs? That stuff's expensive. I hear cows demand luxury housing on dairy farms. Ponies to wait on them hoof to hoof."
Salvia chuckled. "It doesn't quite work like that. But please go get some milk. And some eggs. Unfertilized chicken eggs, if you have them."
"Yeah, we do."
When Whipcrack was gone to get the milk, Salvia said, "I see your mouth watering. You're drooling a little. But you won't eat the meat. Do you think it's wrong, to eat meat?"
"Yes," Discord croaked.
"...You just said yes. Well, you said something like 'iiiaash', but... that sounds too much like yes to be a coincidence."
"Yes," Discord said again, wondering if his fever was so high that he was dreaming this. "I did."
"Oh lands of plenty. You are sapient." The doctor drew a deep breath. "Do they know? In the circus, do they know you can talk?"
"They don't think it's talking," Discord said bitterly. "They think I'm an animal."
"I have to admit I didn't understand any of that. Can you say yes or no? I'll ask the question again, do they know you can talk, and you can say yes or no."
"What you said sounded like 'nau', but I'm going to assume that's how you're pronouncing no. Please confirm if you meant no by saying it again."
"No," Discord said, and giggled weakly. "That's a paradox," he said in draconequine, because he didn't know the word 'paradox' in the pony language. "I'm saying yes to say no."
"Okay, that doesn't sound like pony speech at all, but it's too complicated to be animal noises. Were you just speaking your native language?"
"Dear land. They're slavers and they don't even know it." She took a deep breath.
Whipcrack came back with the milk and eggs then. It had been so long since Discord had smelled the sweetness of cow milk. Despite his nausea, he happily chugged it down. The eggs were raw, and he wasn't the biggest fan of raw eggs. "Raw," Discord said, trying to articulate clearly and slowly. "Want cook eggs." Except he could hear now that what he'd actually just said was "nnnraehh, ahn hccoo ehcc."
"I don't understand that," Salvia said. "But you'll drink milk, and that's the important thing." She got to her hooves. "You need to feed him proteins that aren't meat. Milk's very important, a lot of protein in that, and if I don't miss my guess he's a young creature, well within the age range that milk's good for him. There's other sources of protein. Beans and peanuts, nuts in general actually – mix them in his food for him. Eggs. You could mix them into the slop if they're raw, but he might actually eat cooked eggs. Mushrooms. Cheese and yogurt, if he likes milk he should like those things. Cream occasionally maybe."
"You want him to eat practically like a pony."
"I want him to eat differently than a pony; we're not omnivores. Milk's a tasty treat for us, but for him, it's vital. You've been feeding him in a way that caused protein deprivation, which damaged his immune system and made him vulnerable to other illnesses. He's got a head cold and an ear infection."
"Can you treat him?"
"I'll need to do a sensitivity test to see if he has a bad reaction to the topical potion for his ear." She dabbed a little bit of the potion on the inside tip of his ear. "In fifteen minutes that will either redden and swell up, or it won't, and if it doesn't, I can put the potion in his ear to help combat the illness. As for the cold, they usually just have to run their course, but we could magically amplify his immune system. There's a potion I can give him orally that should stop an infection in most species, and be harmless in the ones it doesn't work in, but it'll be a couple of days before you'll see an effect. You mustn't let him perform as long as he shows any symptoms at all; he could fall and injure himself."
"Great. Just great," Whipcrack sighed.
"You also need to undo those shackles, get that board off of him, and emancipate him. Pay him fair back wages and let him go, or hire him on with a contract." Salvia's voice was suddenly very hard.
Whipcrack stared as if Salvia had suddenly started speaking in gibberish. "What."
"This creature is sapient," Salvia snapped. "And a child. You've been confining a child in a cage with shackles on, and what have you done to his tail? That would be horrifying if you'd done it to any animal, but you did it to a sapient! He talks!"
"He just makes noises that sound like talking," Whipcrack said, but she sounded afraid.
Salvia got in her face. "He. Talks. I couldn't make out much besides 'yes' and 'no' but he's definitely actually speaking a language, and at least some of the time, he's trying to speak pony. He just doesn't have the right tongue or mouth for it so it doesn't sound right. Griffins don't speak pony either, but they're sapients who speak a language, and so is this draconequus."
"That can't be right! Nopony would have sold him to us – look, from what I heard they caught him raiding ponies' barns for food, like some sort of large pest. And anyway, my cutie mark is for training animals, not sapients!"
Salvia's glare was very cold. "My cutie mark is for treating animals too, but I can care for sapients as well. And from the look of your cutie mark, well, torture works on anypony, doesn't it."
"He's just an animal with freaky magic."
"He tried to keep a fish as a pet." Salvia was almost snarling. "And you ponies were so blind, you had no idea what that meant. You murdered his pet in front of him. Why would an animal store a fish in water? How would an animal even know fish belong in water? Or that putting the fish in the water would preserve it longer? Why would he refuse to eat fish, but save one fish to eat later? And then attack you with magic for killing that fish? How did you not see this from the beginning?"
"Let me get Mr. Thunder."
"Oh, by all means, do that. I'm going to give my sapient patient his medication."
After Whipcrack left, Salvia stroked Discord's forehead again. "You poor thing. You must have been through some terrible times. I can see whip scars all over your body. I wish I understood your language better."
"Me too," Discord said.
"Well, I'm going to put drops in your ears, for the dizziness and to apply healing magic directly to the infection. It won't hurt, but it will feel weird. Then I'm going to give you some medicine. It'll taste terrible, but I want you to drink it all up, because it will probably make your sickness go away. You understand me just fine, right?"
"Yes," Discord said.
"Good. Oh, that must be so frustrating for you! You understand ponies, but you can't make the sounds of our language!"
Salvia turned out to be telling the truth, both times. The potion in his ear felt weird and made him even dizzier, and strange things happened to sound – he heard a roaring in his ears, and Salvia's voice sounded briefly as if he was underwater and she was on shore – but it didn't hurt. And the potion she made him drink was absolutely awful. He gagged repeatedly after taking it, but didn't vomit.
"A dose of this every day for three days and you'll be fine before you know it," Salvia said.
Mr. Thunder came in, followed by Whipcrack and a burly unicorn Discord didn't know. "Miss Salvia! I hear you have opinions about my draconequus!"
"They're not opinions, Mr. Thunder, and it's Dr. Salvia. This is a sapient being. He talks. And I'm fairly sure he's a child, so in addition to the penalties against enslaving a sapient being, you could be facing some serious child abuse charges."
"Well, we certainly wouldn't want that!" Thunder Roll said, jovially, and Discord's ears perked. Was it possible? Were they finally going to let him go? He'd want to find another circus to work at, and practice his pony, of course, but he'd gladly see the backside of this place and then never see any part of it again. "Whipcrack, could you go back to the office and tell Legal Pleading that I need him on a contract matter? Tell him specifically that there's a questionable contract involved. Use that word, questionable, so he knows which scrolls to bring."
Salvia scowled. "What do contracts have to do with anything?"
"If we were going to release the draconequus, and if he's really sapient as you say, then certainly we'd want to offer him a job contract. He is an excellent performer. Very dedicated to his craft, you know."
"You've known all along he was sapient," Salvia said in a horrified tone.
"Of course not! We're not slavers here. I run a perfectly respectable circus! Whipcrack, if you'd please?"
"Yes, sir," Whipcrack said, and headed out the door.
"This circus is my life," Thunder Roll said as Whipcrack shut the door behind her. "I'd do anything to protect it. Do you think I'd knowingly purchase a sapient being? But, well, now that it's happened, I'm sure we can smooth it all over and we won't have to involve any of the authorities if he accepts full employment with us."
"Do you really think this child is going to accept an employment contract from you? You've beaten him, chained him, treated him like an animal."
"Miss Salvia, you were hired for medical credentials. Have you even treated our draconequus friend for his illness yet?"
Salvia blinked. "Yes, of course. Short-term, I gave him ear drops. This—" she gestured at the terrible potion she'd made Discord drink – "has two more doses in my bag, that he should take once a day and then he'll be fine. But long-term, he needs more protein. He's an omnivore, but he has some kind of objection to eating meat. Give him milk, beans, nuts, mushrooms, milk products like cheese, eggs, that kind of thing. He can't survive on just vegetarian pig slop."
"Excellent! Well, then, I thank you for your fine service. Cleaner, if you please?"
The burly unicorn nodded – and a thread of magic fired from his horn, clamped Salvia's muzzle shut, and then twisted her head violently. She dropped to the floor, limp.
Discord stared at her. He was feverish. This was a delirium dream. He hadn't just seen that.
"Clean this up," Thunder said to the big unicorn, whose name was apparently Cleaner. He nodded again, and Salvia lifted up in his magic – still limp, her head hanging at an angle that Discord had seen too many times in animals killed by other animals – and then they vanished. Now Discord knew he had to be hallucinating in delirium. Unicorns couldn't just disappear, right?
His eyes widened as a lensing effect passed in front of him. Cleaner hadn't just disappeared. He was using the same kind of invisibility spell Discord himself had used.
As the door opened without any hooves or visible magic touching it, Thunder looked down at Discord. "Sorry you had to see that, boy," he said. "Assuming you are sapient. But I was telling her the skies' honest truth. I wouldn't have bought you if I'd had any idea you might be pony-intelligent, but now it's done and I can't afford for my circus to suffer the kind of penalties we'd come under if we were known to have enslaved a sapient being. There's nothing in the law that grants any kind of amnesty if you didn't know the creature was sapient. If it got out to the authorities that you're intelligent, my circus would have to pay fines back to the first day we got you. We'd be fined out of existence. And I'd spend the rest of my life in jail. I'm never going back to jail again, you get it? Not for some pathetic little chimera."
Discord wished the terrible medicine hadn't quelled the nausea in his guts. He wanted very much to projectile vomit at Thunder. He settled for spitting.
Thunder's mouth twisted in an almost-smile. "All right, boy, I'll give you that one. But if you're smart enough to understand what I'm saying then I'm sure you're smart enough to understand that if you spit at me again I'll beat you within an inch of your life." He loomed over Discord. "There's to be no more of this 'trying to talk' nonsense. You're a trained animal, and that's the way it has to be, and if you persist in trying to get above your station and implicate my circus in an act of slavery... well, you were expensive and valuable but you're not worth my entire circus. I won't lose any sleep if I have to tell Cleaner to take care of you, too."
The fever still burned in him, but chills ran through Discord's blood. Thunder Roll had just threatened to kill him rather than let him be treated like a pony, because if the circus treated Discord like a pony it would reveal that they'd ever enslaved him in the first place.
"Now, you can perform, like you've been doing. You're smart, you learn fast – which I suppose makes sense if you can understand speech – and you're talented. We'll give you the food the late doctor said you need, and if you behave yourself and put on a good show and you keep your mouth shut, so Whipcrack doesn't go getting any ideas, I'll make sure she gives you your treats like you deserve. But if you keep trying to escape or disobey... there are worse places you could be, in a circus, than performing in the ring. You want to be a display in the freak show? I've had naturalists asking if they could poke you with needles, take samples of your blood and study you. I could make back my whole investment selling you off to be dissected. Or I could lock you up in the freak zoo with the two-headed dog and the wooden wolf. And if you make too much trouble, I can call in Cleaner. Up to you, boy."
There was a knock at the door. "Sir, it's Whipcrack. Legal Pleading said he'd come on by in a bit."
"Come on in, Whipcrack!" Thunder gestured expansively with his wing, despite the fact that she was on the other side of a door and couldn't see it.
Whipcrack entered. "Where's the doctor?"
"Paid her off. It cost a bodacious bit, but the whole thing was a shakedown. She knew what kind of penalties we'd suffer if anyone thought we were keeping slaves, and she thought she'd claim one of our animals is talking and blackmail us into paying her off. I don't want you to use her again, even if we're in this neck of the woods."
"Understood, sir. So Mixup's not sapient?"
"Of course not! He's a smart little fellow, don't misunderstand, but no smarter than Whisper's monkeys or Flitterfree's parrots. Give him his medicine, do as the doctor ordered and make sure he gets more protein in his diet, and he should do just fine."
Whipcrack sighed. "That's good. I was worried. I didn't go into animal training to end up torturing slaves. That'd just be wrong, if he's pony-intelligent."
"Well, that's why it's against the law, of course!" Thunder patted Discord with his wing. "If he keeps up all that yowling and chattering like he thinks he's trying to talk and it bothers ponies, we could always cut out his tongue. He doesn't need that to put on a show."
"I don't think there's a need, sir. He's mostly pretty quiet. Yowls when he gets hurt or he's being punished, mostly. And that thing he did the night he tried to escape into the snow was hilarious, at least until he ran off stage and never finished the show that night. But if I could train him to yowl like he's talking to the audience—"
"No, best not. Who wants some ignorant guardspony coming by because some rube misunderstood and thought the draconequus could really talk? Let's avoid the misunderstanding in the first place."
"All right, sir."
Discord wanted to cry, but not in front of either of them. Hatred burned in his heart – more for Whipcrack than for Thunder, ironically. Thunder Roll was evil and what he'd done and what he was willing to do were evil, but that just made him a non-person in Discord's eyes, someone who was unilaterally and wholly an enemy and who knew it. Thunder wasn't under any illusions about being a good pony. Whipcrack... Whipcrack had the gall to think she was good. To think she had a moral high ground of any kind. It wasn't okay in her mind to torture a sapient being, but as soon as they weren't sapient enough to verbally protest the treatment, then it was okay! Her hypocrisy burned.
They all left, then. Discord stared at the spot where Dr. Salvia had died for discovering that he was an intelligent being and telling his captors about it. The more he thought about how horrible it was and how unfair it was, the more tears stung his eyes even as rage burned in his heart.
Someday. Someday he'd get his magic back and he'd practice with it until he was so strong that he could make ponies who treated animals this way into animals and then see how they liked it. Treat Thunder and Whipcrack like objects and refuse to acknowledge that they were even talking while he made them do anything he wanted. He'd put on a show with them. Make them dance around like little puppets. If he could make butter grow wings and milk jugs dance, certainly he could control ponies if he wanted to, right? He just needed to get out of here, and get strong.
His health improved. Perhaps it was his imagination, but drinking milk and eating cheese and nuts felt good in a way that food hadn't felt good in a long time. The three doses of medicine took care of that disease, and then he didn't catch another one, and many of the symptoms of the general malaise that had plagued him for a while went away.
But many did not.
He was bored. He ached all the time because he was forced to sleep in a rigid position, his normally-flexible body unable to bend because of the board bound to his back. As his health improved, he was full of restless energy, but unless he was training or performing he had nothing to spend it on. And the anger and grief at what had happened to Dr. Salvia, and the implications for himself, had never gone away.
They would never acknowledge him to be their equal, or even a less-than-equal employee. He would be treated as an animal, now and forever. They'd never willingly let him go, either. How could they risk him learning to talk and bringing the wrath of the law down on them?
Discord laughed harshly. As if. Law meant nothing to him – law was for ponies. It had never protected or helped him in any way. Magic was what he'd use to get his revenge, if he ever got free. But ponies had such weak magic, it never occurred to them what could be done with magic.
The first time he'd managed to summon magic despite his collar, he'd made the ground liquid, and ponies had sunk hoof-deep in before the collar had stopped him. What if Whipcrack and Thunder sank into liquid ground, and they were missing Whipcrack's horn and Thunder's wings, and no matter how they screamed and begged he pretended they were just making animal noises? Or maybe he'd change the sound of their voices so nothing came out when they talked but animal noises. Quacking, like a duck. That'd be funny. And then they'd sink all the way in and the ground would close over their heads.
And then just as they were about to suffocate to death he'd pull them out. And do it again. Over and over, once for every beating. And then he'd make Dr. Salvia's bones come out of the ground – presumably Cleaner had buried her someplace – and River's bones too, and he would leave Thunder and Whipcrack stuck knee-deep in the ground where they couldn't escape and he would make their murder victims' bones poke them in the forehead, again and again, over and over and over like the horror of the boredom they'd inflicted on him until they begged him to kill them to make it stop. And then he'd say "No," in pony, accentless clear pony that they could understand perfectly, and fly away.
It was a wonderful fantasy, and he indulged in a lot more of them as the days passed, but they weren't enough. Fantasizing about the way the world could be if only he had the power to change it had never been enough for him. He had to do something, something to hurt them, to punish them, but he had no magic.
It wasn't like he wasn't trying. He was struggling against the metal mesh collar, constantly. He could feel it draining him. Since they'd started feeding him properly, there had been moments where he could feel his magic again, and he fought the mesh, trying to get some kind of magic to work, trying to do something, anything, to prove he could still do it. But it never worked. The mesh seemed to grow in power as he did; he could tell because right after he'd been fighting it, unicorn magic stopped being able to touch him at all. Even Whipcrack's whip sometimes fell out of her magic and landed on the floor the moment it touched him, or when it got close, and she'd have to pick it up and use her hoof to hold it.
There were a good number of whippings for him to test that on. He was too angry to control himself, to keep the rage hidden. Whipcrack would say something particularly insulting while he was training and he wouldn't be able to stop himself; he'd spit at her or throw one of the practice balls he was supposed to be juggling. Or he'd take the opportunity to trip a pony that was walking past by grabbing their hoof with his tail and pulling. Or he'd run off during practice and start chewing on props, trying to ruin them.
He didn't try to talk, to explain himself, anymore. That would be useless, and he remembered what Thunder had said, about how they could cut out his tongue if he tried to talk.
Summer days passed and began to turn to autumn. He'd been a prisoner here a whole cycle of seasons. When he thought about that, the rage threatened to envelop him completely.
Discord started looking for weaknesses. What could he do to really hurt the circus? What could he do to punish Thunder for killing Salvia, and holding him prisoner for so long even now that Thunder knew he was sapient?
Bite a pony? He'd only get one pony before they stopped him, and he wanted Thunder to suffer. If he bit Whipcrack, Thunder wouldn't care. He only cared about his circus. And Thunder never came near enough anymore that Discord could bite him.
Attack the audience? No. Discord didn't hate the audience. They didn't know he was intelligent. They loved his act and they applauded him. He wanted Thunder to suffer, and the circus, and Whipcrack, but not the audience.
Attack one of the other animals so that they couldn't do that animal's show? Again, no, because Discord had nothing but sympathy for the other animals (well, except for one rooster who would never shut up, and the constant cock-a-doodle-do was maddening. But no one at all would care if he hurt a rooster that never shut up. Besides, maybe the rooster was trying to talk in rooster language. It wasn't the rooster's fault that his voice was so annoying.)
Attack the tent?
Show after show, Discord used the opportunity to see where the tent poles were fastened, and how, and how they kept the tent – the Big Top – up. The menagerie tent was held up with similar principles, but it was overall somewhat smaller.
The Big Top was an oval. Ponies came in on one of the short sides, and there was an exit on the other short side. When shows were over, ponies were allowed to leave out both of those exits. On one of the long sides were the stair-stepped benches that the audience sat in; on the other long side there was a musical band that played the accompaniment, a place where ponies could buy snacks, and the backstage. And then, in the center, was the ring.
There were many, many poles holding up the tent, and it was tacked down with a lot of stakes outside. But the center pole for the tent, the main pole that went up first, was in the center of the ring. It was very sturdy; as much as its energy went into holding up the tent, the other poles worked on holding up the tent too so the tent helped hold up the pole itself, and they had to actually have a team of earth ponies pull it down when it was time to take it down.
The circus didn't coordinate with weather teams in the places it traveled to all of the time. Most of the time they seemed to manage to get the local pegasi to keep the weather nice, but sometimes it was rainy or even stormy, and autumn was always a time of a lot of storms.
Discord practiced an act that required him to ride a funny one-wheeled vehicle around the ring in a circle, while juggling. He practiced juggling knives, because ponies were amused by balls but astonished when it was flashing steel that could cut him to bits if he lost control. And he practiced using his tail to grab one of the knives as it went around in the loops of his juggling, so he could then set his knives down, grab oranges, juggle them, and then stab them in midair with his knife. Ponies went crazy for that one, and he got to eat the top orange, as long as he did it comically, pretending that he didn't know what an orange peel was for. Then he practiced them all together.
Whipcrack applauded his skill.
What an idiot. She would never see it coming.
He waited until there was a storm, when the rain was pelting hard against the top of the tent and he could hear thunder and even see the flash of lightning through the tent, which was normally too opaque to show any of the outside except whether there was sunlight or not. He got on his unicycle, and juggled his knives, and rode the unicycle around, and while every pony's eyes were riveted to the knives he was juggling and the swiveling and looping he did as he drove the unicycle, none of them were looking at his tail. Or the very sharp knife in it. Or the way he was dragging it over the ropes holding the center pole up at the place that his magical vision told him was the weak point of each rope.
Circle, circle, slice. Circle, circle, slice.
When he started juggling oranges, the two ropes holding the center pole were held by a single fraying strand each, nowhere near strong enough to endure the tension.
When he collected the oranges on the knife and then started ostentatiously and humorously eating one, the fraying strands were starting to break, fiber by fiber.
When he ran up the pole with his claws and grabbed the high wire, he could feel the pole wobbling, just a bit. When he grabbed onto the high wire with his claws and tail, he kicked back against the pole as hard as he could, to send himself skidding across the wire, before he used his tail to right himself and balance on it.
When he jumped up and down on the wire, which was attached to the center pole, he could see it shake the pole in the other direction, away from the direction he'd kicked it. The pole was visibly wobbling at the top now.
Discord jumped down, using his acrobatic skills to twine himself around and fling himself from multiple bars and swings all the way down, so he could land triumphantly next to the pole. And after he bowed and they applauded and he strutted toward the backstage, he wrapped his tail around the closest of the ropes and gave it a good hard yank.
It was a testimony to the construction of the tent that the other rope didn't snap until Discord's act was over and the acrobats started to climb up the ladder on the center pole, and that the pole didn't start to tip until there were acrobats up at the top, weighing it unevenly.
Discord was near the side exit for the animals and performers, being leashed for his trip back to the menagerie tent, when he saw the roof start to move above his head. Whipcrack yanked him out of the Big Top entirely, by his leash, just in time for him to see the center of the tent cave in... sideways. Pulling toward the next support pole.
They barely got out of the way in time as ponies stampeded out of every exit. Whipcrack dragged him through the pouring rain, over to the menagerie tent, but didn't go inside. She was staring, stricken, at the Big Top, as the poles inside it slowly tipped over, then faster, until the whole thing finally collapsed.
Five ponies ended up dead. Three of them were circus workers who'd stayed inside trying to stop the fall of the tent. Two had been elderly ponies who were trampled in the stampede. Discord felt bad about them, but not about the circus ponies. Every pony who worked for this circus was corrupt, and complicit. His suffering was the fault of every single one of them.
Many ponies were injured, mostly from the audience. There was an investigation of some sort. Discord didn't know the details. The investigation, whatever it was, was a complete sham put on for the police, because Thunder Roll knew what he'd done.
Thunder came to see him, not that same night but ridiculously late into the next one. Discord was a light enough sleeper to wake as soon as he heard the cage door unlocking. He shrank back as much as his bonds let him as Thunder flew up into his cage and landed less than two heads away from Discord.
"Did you think you wouldn't get caught?" Thunder asked coldly. "They found the ropes were cut. No one knows how – we inspect those before every nightly performance. But ponies in town are howling for blood. Did you know that you just killed five ponies? Three brave employees who gave their lives to try to save the customers, and two others?"
By that time Discord had in fact heard. He said nothing. Just because Thunder knew he could talk didn't mean Thunder could understand him any better than he ever had.
"I'm going to have to throw some innocent employee under the wagon to appease those ponies, because no one would ever believe a dumb animal would be able to cut the ropes. Does that make you happy?" He kicked Discord. "Five ponies dead, and an innocent pony will have to take the blame and end up in prison. A lovely night's work for you!" Twice more he kicked Discord, who couldn't curl in on himself to protect his softer parts, due to the board; all he could do was try to keep his back to Thunder, but Thunder, despite his weight, turned out to be flightworthy enough to hover over Discord and kick him back into the position he wanted.
"Well. They'll imprison some poor drunkard I find to pin the blame on, but you'll get yours, don't worry. I told you there are worse places you could be than the ranks of the performing animals. You'll learn why you should have listened."
With a final kick, he turned and left. Discord was left shaken, hurt, and frightened, wondering what Thunder was going to do to him. Whipcrack didn't know Discord was intelligent and Thunder couldn't dare reveal that to her, so it wasn't as if Thunder could tell Whipcrack to punish him for cutting the ropes – even she couldn't be blinded enough to believe he could come up with his plan and sabotage the tent without pony levels of intelligence.
Four days after the incident, days with no performances, the circus picked up and moved to a new location... and Discord learned his fate.
The freak zoo was a much smaller tent than the main menagerie. There were maybe a dozen or so animals in it – the two-headed dog and the wooden wolf Thunder had once mentioned were there, plus other creatures. A large, feathered creature with paws, but a beak, with the glare of an owl but the bulk of a bear. A snake-like thing about the size of a foal's leg, with tentacles coming from a flower-like maw. A tiny creature that looked like a pony with insect wings and antennae. A rabbit with antlers. And many others.
Discord was no longer allowed out of his cage. The board was never taken off his back; the wires holding his fingers together were never taken off his paws, and after the second time he pulled them off with his teeth, he was kept muzzled all the time, except during meals. Ponies came to gawk at him, and Thunder Roll talked about how savage and vicious he was, how dangerous and ferocious. They couldn't use magic on him anymore, but they'd send a shock of electricity through the chain attached to the bolt in his tail, making him yowl and writhe. It wasn't enough electricity to be visible or to make a zapping sound, so for the customers watching him it must have looked as if he was reacting to them with territorial fury.
He wasn't the only one suffering this way. It looked as if most of the animals were being tortured to make them seem more ferocious. The tiny bug-like pony wasn't being obviously tortured, but one time Discord was able to see into the creature's mouth, to see what looked like it had been a pony-like tongue before it had been severed into a stump. He remembered Thunder threatening to do the same thing to him. Was the bug-like pony intelligent too? Had it tried to plead its case in a language no one understood, begging to be treated with the dignity of a sapient being, so Thunder had had its tongue cut away?
Sometimes they did take him out of his cage, and earth ponies held him down while strange ponies did various things to him; on different occasions, they poked him, jabbed him with needles, pulled off his scales, and had his mouth forced open with a gag-like contraption while they used tools to press painfully against something on the roof of his mouth, making some sort of liquid shoot out of his fang. They took blood from him, sometimes enough to make him dizzy, and sometimes they pushed something into him with a needle that made him dizzy and nauseous and unable to move his body, as if he was far, far too heavy for the strength of his muscles... but he could still feel everything when they cut him open to examine his innards, and then sewed him back up again. Feel everything, but couldn't move or make a sound.
They'd cut away the metal mesh collar so they could use their magic while studying him, on the occasions when they cut him, and then they'd cast a healing spell on him after stitching him back up, and then someone would weld the collar back on after the healing spell, so he'd have to live with the burns until they healed naturally. It didn't help him; after they put the needle in him and pushed the burning thing into him, he'd lose the ability to use magic just as much as his ability to move his body or make sounds. They talked about him during the studies as if he wasn't even alive, as if he were a thing for them to prod at and inspect. He understood from their conversations that sometimes the ponies studying him were naturalists, ponies who were trying to understand the biology of animals and wanted to study him because he was an unusual type of chimera. Other times they were thaumaturgists trying to study the magic contained in his body. Apparently his blood did interesting things when combined with other magically active ingredients in potions, and the stuff that came out of his fang supposedly made ponies hallucinate.
After a while, he attacked his handlers every time they dragged him from his cage, because it never meant he was being allowed to go for a walk or taken to the practice tents or anything except the experiments. It never did him any good. With his muzzle on, he could in theory still use his fang, but he didn't have access to any of the rest of his teeth, and he couldn't use his claws separately with his fingers wired together. The earth ponies who handled him wore protective gear, and kept him on a kind of leash that used a pole so he couldn't get close enough to them to hurt them.
There was nothing, nothing any more except being stared at as a freak and tortured to give the ponies a better show, the experiments that hurt and terrified him, and the mind-numbing boredom of being bound and helpless in his cell when no one was there. If he snapped at the handlers who freed his mouth so he could eat, they'd deny him a meal, so he didn't even have the pleasure of terrorizing them, not without paying for it. Sometimes he was willing to pay the price anyway, because he hated them and every other pony in this circus so much, but they were used to handling dangerous animals and managed to never let him get his teeth into anything that wasn't covered with padded protective gear. The food was the same as he'd been getting before, slop with nuts and cheese added in, milk given with his meals, but now there were never any treats for performing, or for any reason at all.
Discord spent his days daydreaming of a world where everything was different, because there was no point to trying to dream of realistic things he could reasonably make happen someday when he had no hope of ever being free. What if clouds could sing? What if fish could dance? What if the moon danced the hula, with a grass skirt on? What if glass rained from the sky and ripped apart every pony he hated?
In the beginning, he had hopes that Thunder would change his mind, that Discord would be brought back to perform because he made so much more money for the circus as a performer than as one of many animals in a freak menagerie. Then he had hopes that one of his captors would slip up and not tie something tightly and he'd be able to break free. Then he had hopes that at least he might manage to bite one of them and maybe then they'd decide he was too dangerous to handle and free him, or kill him. At this point, Discord thought death might well be better than living like this.
While he still had hope, he begged silently at night for his mother to come back, to find him and save him. By the time hope died, the thing he'd been denying to himself for years finally sank in. She hadn't gone away to another land like she had said they were all planning to do. The spell had gone wrong. The flash he'd seen, the last moment of seeing his mother or any other draconequus ever, had been the spell vaporizing them, not sending them to a new world. Because if his mother was alive, she'd move sky and earth to come back to him and save him. And she hadn't done it. That meant she was dead.
No one was ever going to come save him. No one was ever going to free him. No one was going to slip up and leave him unsecured enough that he could free himself.
Discord wished he was dead, but with his fingers wired together and his body unable to bend, he couldn't do it himself and he was scared to anyway. So he spent his days dreaming of a world of impossibilities instead, because it was all he had left, or would ever have until he died.