When Celestia opened her eyes, she knew, immediately, without looking at any clocks, that it was two hours until sunrise.
Half an hour before sunrise, her attendants would come to wake her up and help her get dressed in Princess regalia. She would eat something small but tasty, like an apple, because using a lot of magic on an empty stomach would make her dizzy and on a full stomach might make her nauseous. Then she would go out to the ritual circle where the other sun-raising unicorns would be gathering, and together they would raise the sun.
Normally she had no difficulty sleeping until it was time to get up, but something had woken her this time. She wasn't sure what. All she had was the fading memory of a friend's laughter... a friend that didn't really exist.
Tears welled in her eyes. She couldn't even remember his face. She couldn't even remember his race, although probably he'd been a unicorn because she thought she could maybe remember him using magic? All she remembered was how much she cared about him – was he a best friend or a brother? Maybe, in the way that dreams conflated things, he'd been both. She remembered his laughter, and her feeling that they were destined to be friends forever. But he'd never existed.
And then she blinked the tears away, as she remembered the dreams she'd had as a filly. (Well, a young filly. She was a filly now, but she had a cutie mark, so she wasn't a filly filly.)
Celestia swung her back legs out of bed, and then her forelegs, and then she trotted quickly to the door of her room. The door was large and heavy, but her magic was powerful enough that she could help move the sun despite still being a filly, so she had no trouble opening it. It would be very, very late at night by the standards of someone who hadn't gone to bed yet, but she thought there was a good chance Luna might be awake. Despite being a tiny filly who was supposed to go to bed at moonrise, Luna was more often found up well past midnight. Celestia wasn't sure how late she usually stayed up, since Celestia herself had to go to bed early if she was going to work on the sun-raising team, which she had ever since she got her cutie mark. But there had been days when a plainly overtired Luna had showed up for breakfast, demanding waffles with strawberries and then immediately going back to bed, and Celestia was very aware that Luna wouldn't normally wake up for breakfast even if you yanked all her covers off her and poured water on her flank. So if she showed up to breakfast, it was a lot more likely that she'd never actually gone to sleep.
Her sister's bedroom was a good distance down the hallway, but as long as she stayed on the rug and walked rather than trotted, she could mask the clop-clop of her hooves with a spell that made it so she wasn't quite 100% touching the floor, just brushing against the top of the rug. Not that any of the palace guards would stop her if they caught her roaming the palace this late, but it would get back to Father and she didn't want that.
With her magic, she pulled open Luna's bedroom door. Luna had stuffed animals arranged on her bed and was manipulating Stelluffy, a pink and purple cat, with her wings. "...and I say we attack tonight! If we wait until morning, the enemy will be prepared!" Luna said, presumably giving voice to Stelluffy.
Luna startled, dropping Stelluffy. "Oh – sister! I just woke up a few minutes ago!"
"That's not true and I hardly know why you'd say such a thing, when you well know that I know you stay up all night," Celestia said. "I'm not here to carry tales to Father about your sleeping habits. I had a dream and I need to talk to you."
"Oh!" Excitedly Luna leapt off the bed. "A dream? What kind of dream? I have plenty of advice I can give you about dreams!"
"Did you ever dream a thing and have it come true?"
Luna blinked at that. "No... well, perhaps. I often dream of breakfast foods and then at breakfast the foods are there!"
"Cook knows you love waffles. Is it waffles you dream of?"
Celestia sighed. "Did you ever dream about an important thing? And then it came true?"
"I dream about defeating monsters, and so far, no monsters have ever attacked us..."
"Be serious, Luna."
"Defeating monsters is very serious. If I don't defeat them in dreams, they might come out from under my bed and attack me!"
"Did you ever dream of something that ended up happening in real life, during the day?"
Luna frowned. "No," she admitted, sounding disappointed. "Did you?"
"Twice." She sat down on Luna's bed. "Once when I was your age, I dreamed of a little blue pegasus filly, whose name was Luna—"
Luna snickered. "What a strange thing to dream of. I wonder if you might have been inspired by having a blue pegasus named Luna for a sister."
"Mother wasn't even visibly with foal yet."
That brought Luna up short. "You... did?"
Celestia nodded. "I was very disappointed when you were born, because I dreamed of you playing with me, and of course a newborn foal can't do any such thing." She laughed slightly. "Mother and Father both assured me that you'd be ready to play before I knew it, but to be honest, those years seemed very long."
"You really dreamed me before I was born?"
"Well, Mother was a blue pegasus, so I thought perhaps I was only dreaming a sister that looked like her, except less fierce." She swallowed. "But then... when you were still very tiny, before you could even eat anything other than milk... I dreamed of Mother fighting a terrible creature, a snake with the face of a horse—"
"A horse? Not a pony?"
"It was definitely more like a horse." Celestia had never seen a real horse, only pictures, but the giant animal cousins of ponies had made a strong impression on her in the pictures she'd seen. "Anywise, I dreamed of Mother, with flame in her mouth, charging through the air at this monster, who was long and thin and made of all sorts of different animals. In the dream, she struck him with the flame, and he began to burn, but he pointed at Mother and her wings fell off, and she fell." She swallowed again. "Then Mother told me she was going to fight the Spirit of Chaos, who was trying to destroy all Equestria, and I... I knew she'd never come back."
Luna sat next to Celestia and draped a wing over her older sister's back. "How awful! I don't know what I'd do if I dreamed of Father dying, and then he did... I'm so sorry for you, sister."
Celestia managed a smile. This wasn't a thing she liked remembering. "Thank you, but it was your loss too," she said. "You just don't remember."
"I don't," Luna admitted. "I wish I did remember her. Everyone tells me of Mother's nobility and her power in flight, but everypony here is either an earth pony or a unicorn. I hardly ever even see a pegasus unless they're in the palace guard. You have both Father and Starswirl to teach you magic, but who'll teach me to fly?"
"I'm sure Father will find a tutor for you when you're old enough," Celestia said. "In any wise. Twice now I've dreamed a thing and it came true. Last night, I dreamed of a friend – or perhaps a brother, I'm not sure—"
"With Mother dead, how could we have a brother?" Luna asked skeptically.
"I don't know. Perhaps Father will marry again. Perhaps he'll adopt a colt. But you know how dreams are. I'm not sure whether he was a friend or a brother, but I dreamed of him laughing, and I was laughing with him, and I remember in the dream feeling that our destinies would be entangled forever... and then I woke up and now I can't even remember his face. I only guess he was likely a unicorn because I think he was using magic."
"And you think this might be another true dream?"
"I don't know. You are so interested in dreams, I thought perhaps you'd know how to tell."
"If you dreamed me as I am, and you dreamed Mother's battle as it was... why would you dream a colt whose face you can't remember, if it was a true dream?" Luna asked. "It's the normal way of dreams that we forget them when we wake, but all I've read of true dreams says that they stand out in the mind."
Celestia raised an eyebrow. "All you've read?"
"I can read a bit for myself!"
"A tome on dreams, though?"
"Well, no, I had Nurse read those to me, and we skipped the boring bits. But still! Whether I read it with mine own eyes or Nurse's voice, still I've read it, right?"
"But I woke up right after the dream, far earlier than my norm. What woke me up, then, if it wasn't a true dream?"
"It's true..." Luna put her forehoof to her chin. "True dreams are supposed to wake the dreamer, so she'll remember. But they're also supposed to be easy to remember. I don't know, then. This seems as if it could be either one." She raised the hoof into the air next to her head suddenly. "Wait! Have you thought of how you might meet such a friend?"
"He could have been a brother..."
"How old were you in the dream?"
"I don't know. I don't think I was an adult..."
"Then he can't have been a brother, because there isn't time left in your childhood for Father to remarry and our stepmother to foal and then our brother to grow old enough to be laughing with you, unless it was a foal's laugh. Was he a foal?"
"No," Celestia admitted. "He was more of an age with me."
"Then he can't be a brother."
"Unless Father adopts."
"Why would he adopt? He has his heir, and a second princess in case you need help. We don't need a brother!"
While Celestia thought perhaps Luna's vehemence had more to do with wanting to remain the baby than an actual belief in the non-necessity of brothers, she did have a point. Too many siblings destabilized a royal family, so she'd been taught. "So a friend, then. If it's a true dream."
"Or perhaps the colt you're destined to marry!" Luna pointed out.
"Because we don't have any friends, sister. How would you meet a friend? Colts our age aren't even allowed to play with us."
It wasn't entirely true that Celestia had no friends, not anymore. There were noble unicorn fillies and earth pony fillies from the great clans, like Apple and Cookie, who would come to the palace to be her playmates... but only fillies were chosen for the honor. None of her friends were colts, nor were any colts likely to be invited to the palace to be her playmate. She did know some young stallions, who were something like friends; she was the youngest of the circle of unicorns who raised the sun, but her status as a princess and the strongest of them meant that they treated her as an adult. None could be called a close friend, but they laughed with her sometimes. "He could be another sun-raiser. They're much like friends to me."
"Didn't Master Starswirl say that they must change every year, though?"
Celestia nodded. Most unicorns couldn't work on raising the sun longer than a year before taking permanent damage to their magic. Starswirl thought that Celestia might be different; she was hardly the only pony with a sun cutie mark, but she could feel the sun even on the other side of the world, and joining her magic to the others' to call to the sun felt effortless, even exhilarating. Most unicorns didn't try to join in on raising the sun when they were still blanked, most didn't claim to hear the sun calling them, and none other had gotten their cutie mark when they tried to join in on raising the sun and found themselves successful, despite being young and mostly untrained in spellwork. Obviously she couldn't lift the sun by herself, no individual pony could ever be that powerful, but they'd determined that when Celestia joined in they didn't need a full eleven other unicorns... one or two of the team had been taking days off to rest their magic almost every day since Celestia had joined, because her magic seemed so attuned to the sun, they could get by with a team of ten or eleven rather than the full twelve. It seemed that raising the sun actually was her special talent, and so Starswirl thought perhaps she'd be able to do it her whole life without damaging her magic. But it was indisputable that it drained and damaged other unicorns. "Perhaps I'll be able to remain friends with some, though. And since they must change every year, perhaps that's where I'll meet him! Every powerful unicorn comes to the palace to give service to the sun or the moon, eventually."
"It's possible, then." Luna shrugged. "But then why couldn't you remember his face?"
Celestia looked at the ground and pawed at the bed, once, before remembering that Nurse said that that gesture showed too much uncertainty and humility to be appropriate for a princess. "I don't know."
"Perhaps you should ask Master Starswirl. I certainly can't give you more advice." She looked back at Stelluffy, lying discarded on the bed. "I want to go back to playing before Nurse wakes up and makes me go to sleep."
If she thought about it, Celestia realized it might seem somewhat unbecoming to be turning to a sister half her own age for advice. Luna couldn't even read yet – not books for adults, at any rate. "If you don't go to sleep soon, how will you be able to wake up in time for the circus?"
"Is that today? I'd forgot."
"Luna," Celestia said, exasperated. "We've only been talking about it for a week!" Going to the circus when it was in Equupolis was apparently also beneath the dignity of princesses, no matter how many times they pestered their father the king, the archmage their teacher, or their nurse, but inviting the circus to come perform at the palace was perfectly acceptable. Celestia had had a hard time concentrating on her lessons all week.
"I suppose I'd best go to sleep soon, then," Luna said, sighing as if very put-upon by the necessity. "If only ponies never needed to sleep! Should you find a spell to let a pony not need sleep, sister, please cast it on me?"
Celestia laughed. "I think that should there be such a spell, Master Starswirl would never sleep." She'd caught her teacher napping on more than one occasion. There might be spells to eliminate the need for sleep for a short time, but she didn't think the kind of thing Luna wanted, a spell that would let her go without sleep indefinitely, existed.
She didn't think she was going to be able to get back to sleep for the hour and a half or so before dawn, and this time early in the morning would give her the opportunity to do the reading for her lessons before the sun was up and there was the opportunity to play in the gardens. She'd have to play alone because of Luna's weird sleep schedule and the lack of a scheduled playdate with any of her companions, but she was used to it. Celestia climbed off her sister's bed and got to her hooves. "It would be best if you did get some sleep," she said. "The circus will be coming to us in the late afternoon, so you'll have the chance to get a full night's worth. Well, in your case, day's worth."
Luna laughed, and then mock-pouted. "I'll never understand why ponies insist on sleeping during the best hours, and being awake when that bright orb of eyeball doom is in the sky."
"Some of us like to see colors rather than shadows," Celestia retorted, but in good humor. She and Luna teased each other about the value of night vs. day all the time since she got her cutie mark. "It's not so dire, at any rate. We only need avoid looking at it directly; then it doesn't hurt the eyes."
"Speak for your own eyes," Luna said.
"I will! My eyes quite love it!" Celestia grinned. "But lest we debate until sunrise, I'll take my leave now, and let you sleep, if you will."
"I might," Luna said. "Perhaps."
"You don't wish to be too sleepy to see the circus!" Celestia advised, before pulling open the door to Luna's room with her magic and heading back to her own. She had to decide which of her studies to pursue in the hour she had before she needed to begin preparing to join the sun-raising ritual. History seemed a fair bet, or thaumaturgy, or maybe even natural science. Or perhaps literature. Math was right out.
By afternoon, Celestia had helped raise the sun, played in the courtyard gardens, peeked in on the circus crew setting up their Big Top, had her lessons, peeked in on the circus again, practiced some spells, and trained in deportment a bit, trotting about with a hat perched on her head. The hat kept falling off. The idea, her governess said, was to trot so gracefully and smoothly that the hat would stay on, and do not use magic to cheat and hold it close. Her governess sighed at her progress, or lack thereof. "Her Majesty Platinum's granddaughter you might be, but you're also the daughter of Imbrium, of Commander Hurricane's line."
Celestia frowned slightly. "Pegasi have different ways to be royal than unicorns," she said. "There's no shame in being a pegasus royal. My mother was a warrior, not a diplomat."
Prim Proper ducked her head deferentially. "Of course, your highness, I meant no disrespect to your mother."
My mother who you still haven't called "Her Majesty" as you did Grandmother Platinum. Celestia didn't say anything. It was more important to keep peace and slowly wear away the pro-unicorn prejudices of the staff over time, before Luna had to take deportment lessons too. "It's true, I'm a unicorn, so your lessons are of great importance to me," she said diplomatically. "So I'll do my best to improve. But I'm not at all ashamed to be the daughter of a pegasus, even if her blood in my veins might make me a trifle rougher than my father was." Father was actually well pleased with Celestia's progress and claimed that he'd been able to keep the hat on far less than she could when he was her age, but Prim Proper was too young to have trained the king.
"Of course, your highness, as you say."
She was saved from further awkward conversation and any more need to trot about with the hat by the arrival of a messenger. "Princess Celestia! His Majesty the King requests your presence in the throne room!"
The hat promptly fell off again as Celestia reared up slightly in excitement. "Is it finally time for the circus?"
"I wouldn't know, your highness. The King only asked me to summon you."
"It must be! It must be!" Celestia practically bounced out of the studio where she'd been practicing her smooth trot. "Good day to you, Governess Proper! I'll see you tomorrow!"
In the throne room, Father and Master Starswirl were there, waiting... but no Luna yet. Celestia sighed. "Luna isn't awake yet, is she?"
"Her nurse was told to carry her here if she refuses to get out of bed," Father said, "but I wanted to spare her the humiliation if she's willing to come on her own hooves."
Luna walked in, slowly, dragging each hoof. "Good morning, Father, Master Starswirl, Celestia," she croaked.
"It's afternoon, Luna," Celestia chided her. "I warned you."
"You really need to work on your sleep schedule, little one," Father said. "I know you enjoy the night, but there are things that need to be done by daylight."
"I know, Father," Luna said, head hanging. Celestia happened to know her head was hanging less out of remorse and more out of exhaustion; Luna disliked meeting anypony's eyes when she was tired.
"She'll get moon or stars for a cutie mark," Master Starswirl said. "Mark my words. All the best mages are night ponies." He ruffled Luna's mane. "Oh, if you'd only been born a unicorn, little one! What a mage you'd grow into!"
Father sighed. "I'm sure Luna will be as magnificent in flight as her mother was. In the meantime, I believe there is a circus two little fillies wished to attend?"
"I'm ready, Father!" Celestia said.
"I'm sure you are... but I don't think Luna is," Father teased.
Luna raised her head. "Am so!"
"Are you really? You look as if you'd rather return to your bed than go to a circus. Would you rather take a nap? We can wait."
"Faaaather!" Celestia stamped a hoof impatiently. "Luna's ready, now let's go!"
"But she hasn't said anything. You can't speak for your sister, Celestia. Luna? Are you sure you're ready?"
Luna's eyes were beaming a death glare at their father. "Tia does speak for me and I am ready! I'm not even tired at all!"
This was obviously a lie, but Father let it pass. "All right then, shall we go?"
Celestia was very impressed by the circus. Luna was not.
"Look, Luna! Look how they sail through the air!"
"Any grown pegasus could do that," Luna grumbled.
"But they're earth ponies. How dangerous that must be! They can't even catch themselves with magic if they should fall!"
The Big Top was eerily empty. It could obviously accommodate hundreds of ponies on the benches surrounding the performing rings, but the only ponies sitting there now were members of the royal court, perhaps 30 ponies in all. Celestia wished the stands were full, that the ponies in them weren't obviously taking their cues from her and her father and clopping their hooves only when they saw that she or her father were, rather than when excitement overtook them. Court was so artificial. Ponies never wanted to show her their true faces, and she could already see the problem would get worse as she got older; sometimes she could catch ponies out because they ignored her for being a child, but she never saw anypony drop their guard around Father.
She wanted to be swept up in the excitement of a crowd. She wanted to be surrounded by a wave of sincere emotion, ponies all around her radiating the same feelings in harmony. Raising the sun was like that. Nopony cared that she was the princess, when she joined in with the other sun-raisers. They were there to do a job, united in the harmony of their task and their desire to help the other ponies of the world by raising and lowering the sun. She'd hoped the circus would be like that, that there would be ponies filling the stands, all feeling the thrills and excitement at the same time. But here she was sitting next to her sister, who wasn't even impressed by the earth pony acrobats at all, just because she was a pegasus, and Father seemed to be clopping his hooves just to be polite, and Starswirl wasn't even paying attention, and none of the other ponies seemed to have sincere reactions at all.
It was very disappointing. Celestia tried to put it out of her head and focus on the show. And the show was fun, and thrilling to watch, and the clowns were funny – even Luna was impressed by them – and she loved the animal performances – the birds who flew in synchronized patterns and trilled recognizable tunes, the monkeys who juggled, the parrots who had conversations with the pony who presented them. (Luna was less interested, not being much of a fan of nature.) But it wasn't really enough. She wanted others she could share her feelings with. If not a crowd of like-minded ponies, then at the very least a friend. Besides Luna. A friend closer to her own age, who actually woke and slept on her schedule more or less rather than staying up all night and sleeping half the day.
When it was over, and the performers had bowed, Celestia said, more wistfully than with any active belief that she could have it that way, "Would there were more! I'd gladly watch another hour or two..."
The pegasus ringmaster flew up the stands. Despite his bulky frame, he seemed to have no difficulty getting into the air. "Pardon me, Your Highness, but I couldn't help hearing that you wanted an encore performance?"
For a moment Celestia, taken aback that she was being directly addressed by a commoner, could say nothing. Not that it bothered her to be addressed – she simply hadn't expected it to happen. Nopony outside of palace staff, nobleponies, and elected earth pony officials had ever spoken to her before. Father said, "I do believe the princess was interested in seeing more, yes. Do you have anything else to show her, circus master?"
"I do indeed, Your Majesty! If the princesses would come out of the courtyard—" he gestured with his foreleg – "we have our menagerie parked outside the palace, in Equupolis proper, and we would love to host them! We have exotic animals from every end of Equestria, and places outside our land as well!" He leaned his head forward. "Forgive me if this is presumptuous of me, but I do believe the young Crown Princess seemed very interested in our animals?"
Luna yawned ostentatiously. "Perhaps the Crown Princess is, but not this princess," she said. "Father, if the only thing there is to see anymore is more animals, I want to retire back to my room, if you please."
Father tousled Luna's mane with a forehoof. "Very well, little one. Nurse, please escort Luna back to her room?"
Luna's nurse nodded, curtsied, and led Luna away.
"If it please you, Your Majesty, I'll retire as well," Starswirl said. "I've studies I need to return to."
"Yes, yes," Father said. "Someday, you'll learn to lighten up and have fun, Swirl. But go on."
Celestia looked up at Father, her eyes shining, desperately controlling the urge to bounce in place. "A menagerie, Father? Can I go see?"
Father smiled indulgently at her, before turning his attention to the ringmaster again. "No offense to you, good circus master, but my daughters cannot simply leave the palace and mingle in Equupolis. There are many who disagreed with the decision to unite the races' leadership, and in the crowded space of your menagerie tent, there would be no room for the guards who protect my daughter to maneuver. However, she does want to see your beasts... and I know that an itinerant circus must be able to move the creatures' cages. Please bring the cages here, into the courtyard, for her to view the animals within."
The ringmaster blinked. "Hmm. Yes, I think we can do that, Your Majesty. Let me make the arrangements."
And so it was that half an hour later, a cage was wheeled out with a snarling beast within, a creature like a lion, but with bat wings and a long stinging tail. "Behold the Manticore!" the ringmaster said. "A ferocious chimera from far eastern lands, with the body of a lion, the wings of a bat and the tail of a scorpion!" The beast roared and lunged at the bars of its cage. "The Manticore is a meat eater, so do be sure to stay well away from the cage!"
While the creature was fascinating to look at, Celestia felt sad, seeing its obvious distress and anger. She didn't see what could be done – plainly a dangerous meat-eating animal couldn't be let free – but it hurt to see how its captivity was making it suffer.
Other animals were less upsetting. There was a magnificent peacock, and an absurdly large rooster with white and black feathers and a proud red crest, larger than Luna. There was a wolf made of wood, and a crocodile made of rock. A black and white striped cat-like creature paced within a cage; the ringmaster called it a "tiger". There was a tiny, delicate creature, shaped like a pony but with butterfly-like wings, in a birdcage. Celestia oohed and aahed over each new creature as it was brought out. Some of them, she was able to get very close to, like the birds and the small pony-like creature.
It saddened her to see how some of the more monstrous ones were treated. A large red serpent-like creature with a mouth full of razor teeth coiled within a very large cage, occasionally levitating and slamming itself at the bars. Celestia could plainly see why the creature had to be caged, but its obvious unhappiness at being in that cage made her heart twinge in sympathy. Another large catlike creature, black and smooth-furred, paced impatiently in its cage. A large leathery bird screeched in another cage, battering at it with its wings.
"Those animals seem so unhappy," she murmured. "Father, is there nothing we can do?"
"We cannot simply confiscate the circus' property, and putting animals in cages to display them isn't illegal mistreatment," her father said softly. "And we would be hard-put to keep such savage beasts safe and happy themselves while also safeguarding our ponies from them."
"And now," the ringmaster said, "the strangest animal of all! We promise, you've never seen a creature like this! A chimera of too many animals to count – part pony, part dragon, part lion, part snake, part goat, part eagle, and so many others! Introducing Mixup, the draconequus!"
Next to Celestia, Father stiffened. She glanced back at him, and saw shock in his face for a moment, perhaps even fear, before it hardened into a grim visage. Puzzled as to why her father would react in such a way, Celestia turned to look at the animal whose cage had been dragged out – and drew in a breath of shock herself.
The creature in the cage had the head of a colt.
Even in his cage, he was bound and chained a dozen different ways. His eyes looked wrong, unponylike – she couldn't clearly see them at this distance, but they looked like they might be solid yellow. And he was glaring at her, at her father, at the ponies in the stands, as if he wanted to cast them all dead with just his gaze.
He was obviously miserable.
Without saying what she intended, since Father would stop her if they did, she rose from her seat and trotted down to the arena. "Circus master!" she said in her most commanding tone. "I wish to see this creature more closely. Please remove him from the cage!"
"Ah, Princess, I wouldn't do that if I were you," the ringmaster said, smiling nervously. "The creature can be very dangerous..."
"You have him chained and bound," Celestia pointed out. "Surely your ponies can protect me from a chained animal? I want to see him."
She did, but that wasn't her reason. He was a colt. There was intelligence in those angry eyes. Surely Father would see it, if he were removed from his cage.
"Celestia," Father said warningly. "If the circus master says it's dangerous—"
Celestia put on her most winning smile. "Oh, Father! The creature is so fascinating, though! And I can hardly see him if he's behind bars! Besides, we have our guards, and you're very powerful in magic, and the circus master has his ponies as well... how could there be any danger from one little creature?"
Father softened, as he always did. "Very well, then, but be careful."
The creature snarled through his muzzle and twisted his head wildly as the handlers pulled him from the cage. "I must warn you that this creature is powerfully magical," the ringmaster said. "We've placed a collar on him to protect all of us from his wild magic, but it's made it impossible to use magic directly on him."
"That changes things," Father said. "Celestia, you should stay far back. If magic doesn't work on him—"
Father hadn't seen it yet. Celestia knew he had to see it for himself. If she said the creature was a colt and intelligent and he should be set free, Father would smile indulgently, and ignore her. Admittedly, she'd spent entirely too much time as a young filly declaring that various animals were her friends and they could talk to her. But she was older now! She could tell the difference between animals and creatures who could speak!
"He's in chains, Father," she said. "What harm could he do?"
"Now, your highness, the reason the creature is in chains is because he's a dangerous and wild beast, and you can never take your safety for granted with such an animal," the ringmaster said. "I must advise you to stay back."
"Oh, but I want to see!" Celestia said – and bolted forward, before her guards could intervene or anyone else could stop her.
There was a board on his back, segmented, with round rings on its top where there had been a rod. She'd seen them remove it as they brought him out to display. His body twisted and writhed now, but with the rod in place, he wouldn't even be able to do that, and his paws and one hoof were shackled with chains that connected to the board, short, so he had very little range of motion. She could see his fur was worn away under the shackles. If he was an animal, this was horrible abuse. If he wasn't... She felt sudden rage on his behalf. She knew he wasn't an animal.
And then, before she had a chance to react, his long tail, with the segmented board running all the way down it, swept out, curled around her hoof, and yanked her to his side. He threw one foreleg around her neck, pulling himself to two legs, his talons sharp against her neck. "Reh groh!"
One of the circus ponies, horrified, tried to yank on the chain around his neck. "Mixup! No!"
"Yehss," he hissed. With his other paw he grabbed the chain and yanked it back toward himself. "Reh groh! Aii kihh hfrincehz! Reh groh!"
"He's telling you to let go of his chain," Celestia said, her heart beating frantic and hard. She'd been looking for a way to free him; she hadn't thought of doing it by becoming his hostage. Would he really hurt her? He could – the claws were sharp – but would he? He was desperate, after all. She would be, too, in his position.
The circus pony responded by yanking on the chain more savagely, which led Mixup to yank it back and dig his claws into Celestia's neck, drawing a bead of blood. "Ai kiih! Reh groh naoww!"
"Let go of his chain!" Celestia demanded. She couldn't free herself with her magic; it felt like it was being sucked away the moment she lit her horn. In the stands she could see Father's horn lit, but nothing was happening.
"He's not talking, your highness, he can't talk, he's an animal—" The pony, an earth mare with a cutie mark of a chair and a whip, was practically babbling.
"Animals don't take hostages," Father said, striding forward. "Creature! I have archers surrounding you! You may be resistant to magic, but I doubt you are resistant to arrows. Release my daughter, or die!"
The creature laughed. "Kihh nee! Hrincez kihh too!"
"Father, don't," Celestia said. "He's desperate and scared—"
"He's threatening my daughter's life!" Father shouted. "Ringmaster! How did you not know this was a talking creature?"
"I – we never guessed," the ringmaster babbled. "Everything he says sounds like animal noises, how were we to know?"
"Raaiis," Mixup snarled. "Raaiis, raaizz, raaiz! Sey nyu! He nyu!" His foreleg tightened even more. "Free nee ro aii kihh. Kihh nee? Sen free, an hrincez gro ihh nee."
"Calm down," Celestia said. "It's okay. My father will free you. You don't have to threaten me."
"Sen do ihh. Free nee."
"Creature, I will not make this demand again. My archers are at the ready. Release my daughter now or die!"
"Father! He's intelligent and they've been treating him like an animal! How would we behave, in such a case? Don't threaten him!"
"Celestia, what do you expect me to do with a being who's threatening to kill you?"
"Do as he says," Celestia said. "Free him. Why is he being held in chains and displayed to audiences as a magical beast if he's intelligent?" She turned to the pony with the whip and chair cutie mark. "You! My father will reimburse the circus for whatever you've paid for this creature, but he is no longer yours. Free him now."
"Your Highness... it's not that simple..."
"Surely you have the key to these chains?"
Mixup laughed, hyena-like but enough like a pony laugh that Celestia could tell what it was... and that it was bitter. "No key. Nehr s'hfoss cahn off."
"Wait, did you just say they're never supposed to come off?"
The hand at her throat fell away, as the creature looked down at her in shock. "You... you unrssan nee?"
"Your accent's really hard, but yes, I understand some of what you're saying." She squirmed free of his loosened grip while he was still too startled to remember he was trying to hold her hostage. "For instance." Celestia's voice hardened. "Father, I believe that when the ringmaster said that they thought he was an animal and could only hear animal noises... he said 'Lies, they knew.'"
"How do you know?" Father asked. "Celestia, I can tell what he's saying are words, but I thought he was speaking a completely different language. I couldn't make out anything he was saying at all!"
She shrugged. "It just... sounds like that's what he's saying, that's all."
"Yehss," the creature said, trying to nod his head despite the board and chains restricting his movement. "Yehss! He nyu! Kiih hfony cuz ssee nyu, ssehh sey haa free nee cuz Aaii can taahhhk, an' he dihhn wahn any t' nroh..."
"I didn't understand most of that," Celestia admitted. "But it's all right." She reached up and laid a hoof on his shoulder. "We'll get you out of these chains."
Father sighed. "I suppose we do have to," he said, sounding much more reluctant than she'd have thought he would be to free a child from bondage. He must have been really upset by Mixup taking her hostage and threatening to kill her, she thought. Normally she'd never expect Father's compassion to falter. "Ringmaster. Is the creature's accusation accurate? Did you know he was intelligent?"
"I swear that when we purchased him, we had no idea he was intelligent," the ringmaster stammered. "We would never condone enslaving an intelligent creature!"
"Raiiz," Mixup snarled again.
"Mmm. And the fact that draconequui were common in the southern regions when the Founders first came here, and they were intelligent creatures with a civilization... that didn't ring any bells? I suppose you were completely ignorant of all of that?"
"I—I'd never heard of such a thing! I bought him because I was told he was an exotic beast!"
"Ah." Father nodded. "Well, the law doesn't provide for ignorance being an excuse, but under most circumstances, with a genuine misunderstanding involved like this, we would waive the penalties." He strode forward. "Release the creature into our custody now."
"He duzn deserrr it," Mixup said. "He kihh hfony to keee sheekreeh!"
Wait. Was he saying someone had killed a pony to keep the secret?
"Of course, Your Majesty!" The ringmaster bowed, sweat shining on his flanks. "Whipcrack, get those chains off him!"
"Good," Father said. "I do have to take certain factors into consideration, though. Namely, the fact that you have obviously abused him beyond all reasonable treatment for an animal. I'm not inclined to make an exception under the law for an animal abuser, whether or not they were also a knowing slaver." As the ringmaster went pale, Father called to the guards. "Arrest this stallion."
"Wait! No! Your Majesty, I swear—"
"I think the draconequus just said that this stallion might have killed a pony to keep it secret that he was intelligent," Celestia interjected. "I can't be completely certain, but it sounds very much as if that's what he's saying."
"Yehss," Mixup said.
"No! He's lying! I didn't – I would never do such a thing! My hooves are clean! I'm innocent! Are you going to take the word of some creature—"
"We will investigate," Father said sharply. "Take him to the dungeon. Sergeant Peppercorn, please take a group and make sure the circus ponies are detained. They aren't under arrest and they can remain with their tents for now, but until we've had a chance to investigate how deeply this practice of enslaving intelligent beings goes, none of them are to leave Equupolis."
The mare who'd been ordered to remove Mixup's chains had brought over an earth pony with bolt cutters, who was breaking the links on Mixup's chains and freeing him, although the shackles and the collar remained on his body. The board fell away.
"You'll be freed to return to your normal life," Father said to Mixup, stiffly, which Celestia didn't understand at all. "I'm not aware of any draconequus settlements around anymore, but if you head south into quetzalcoatl territory or out east to the coast, there may still be some—"
"No, Father," Celestia interrupted.
Father sighed again. "What is it now, Celestia?"
"He's a colt. If he's older than me I would be much surprised. You can't just send him on his way to try to find his people when he doesn't speak the language well and he's been abused; he's a child. We have to take him in and take care of him."
"Wha—nroh! Aai cahn taay caeh naisehh, Aaii dohn nee—"
"Yes, you do," Celestia said. "At least, until you're healthy. I don't know what beasts like you are supposed to look like, but I love to take care of animals, and I know that any with scales as dull as yours or fur and feathers so sparse, and so many visible bones, cannot possibly be in good health."
"We could find a foster home for him in Equupolis," Father pointed out. "You can't take an intelligent creature as a pet, daughter. Perhaps you're right, perhaps he's a child in ill health and needs to be cared for, but there's no especial reason why that duty would fall to the royal family."
"I don't want a pet – I mean, of course I don't want to take him as a pet, Father! But if I'm the only one who could see that he was a colt, and I'm the only one who could tell that he was speaking our language, then must need he live with me and not some strangers who mayn't be able to understand him or tell what he needs!" She lowered her head, and then tilted it up at him with pleading eyes. "Please, as a favor to me. At least until he's healthy and can speak well enough to travel on his own."
Mixup shook his head stubbornly. "Aaii don nee you. Aaii cahn tay caeh naisehh."
"I don't think you can," Celestia said. "If ponies who see you can't tell you're a talking creature or that you're even speaking our language, how would you find food? Where would you take shelter? This is Equupolis, a large city, not a forest or some other wild place." She rested her hoof on his shoulder again and looked up into his eyes. "I'm sure you were able to take care of yourself in your homeland, before the circus enslaved you. But here, you'll need help."
He shook his head again. "Chuss nee mazih." With one claw he tugged at the thick metal mesh collar around his neck. "Tay ziss aw nee an lehh nee yuuss nai mazih."
She wondered why he could pronounce the letter m when he tried to say "magic" but not when he tried to say "my" or "me". "You can't use magic well when your body's not healthy," she said firmly. "Now, no more arguments. I'm the Princess and you have to do as I say."
"She's right, boy," Father said gruffly. "I may be the King around here, but Princess Celestia definitely outranks me." He chuckled. "So, um. You don't have any possessions at the circus that we need to retrieve for you, do you? I imagine not, since they were keeping you chained up in a cage, but..." Mixup shook his head. "All well and good then, let's get you inside and get you cleaned up and get that collar off you. I want my court mage Starswirl to take a look at you."
Mixup's eyes darted back and forth. He was plainly extremely uncomfortable with the idea, but he allowed Celestia to lead him back into the palace proper. As soon as the doors were closed behind them, though, he bolted.
"Guards! Retrieve that draconequus! He can't be allowed free roam in the palace!" Father shouted.
Celestia chased after Mixup, followed by the guards – pegasi in the air of the hallways, unicorns trying and failing to grab hold of him. Something about that collar around his neck seemed to swallow magic. The guards weren't very effective, though, because the draconequus' body was long and low rather than tall like an adult pony, and he could go under furniture and slide through gaps between a door and a floor that seemed impossible.
Celestia knew the palace by heart, though. Perhaps the guards did too, but not from the perspective of someone small, someone who could go places no adult could fit. So she followed him. Into the kitchen, where he sent pots and pans flying every which way, though the disaster would have been a lot worse if they hadn't already served dinner. Into one of the main hallways, where he knocked over decorative suits of armor and sent them rolling at the guards. Celestia easily jumped them.
And then Starswirl was there, between Mixup and his nearest exit. He reared back.
"Nunny, chinshi yuzhin. Nee bushing yow shwimma?"
Mixup stopped dead. "Ni show wuud yeyang?"
"Budow." Starswirl looked down at him. "We have food, and we can try to get that blasted collar off you, but you need to cooperate, and stop running."
Mixup's eyes narrowed. "Zhezuh ho byow shwang."
"Celestia. The boy listens to you," Starswirl said impatiently. "Tell him I'm not lying."
"Of course you're not! Master Starswirl is very honorable. If he says he'll give you food and get that collar off, then that's what he's going to do."
Mixup sighed. "Oww raii sen."
"What's he speaking, Master Starswirl?" Celestia asked.
"The draconequui used to speak a dialect of the language of Longkuo, the dragon country far to the east. I learned a small amount of it, back in the days when... well, that's not important. My accent is surely terrible, but possibly better than his Equestrian is." He turned away from Mixup to look at Celestia. "Your father summoned me to help with this. I hope you know what kind of barrel of earthworms you've opened with this."
"He's a colt, Master. Maybe not a pony colt, but a colt nonetheless, and they were torturing him and treating him like an animal. I had to save him!"
"Yes, yes. We all know what a soft heart you have, Celestia. Well, what's done is done. Come, boy, let's get some food into you. You're skin and bones. We don't have any meat for you, but there's plenty of cheese and nuts."
"Aii dun eee neeeh," Mixup said sharply. "Showlungmah de hezzy jido."
"Ah, yes, because that's what everyone remembers about the draconequui. Their dedication to Harmony," Starswirl said. He sounded sarcastic, but Celestia didn't understand why. "Come on. Celestia, go see your father."
Celestia bowed. "I will, Master Starswirl."
She trotted off... and then turned and watched as Starswirl led Mixup back to the kitchens. Only after she could no longer see him did she go to find her father.
Father seemed unusually tense and nervous. "Celestia, I've questioned the circus workers, and I don't think there's any question. The draconequus can't stay here." He was pacing, and his voice higher pitched and faster than she was used to.
"What? Father, why not?"
"It's inhumane – not to mention terrible for his health – to cage his magic like that," Father said. "But his magic is wild. Chaotic. They describe him making horns and wings disappear off unicorns and pegasi, or turning stone to water. We can't have something like that running loose in the palace."
"Can't Master Starswirl do something to suppress his magic? Like that spell you told me you had to cast on me when I was a baby and having magical surges?"
"We don't know. He's not a pony, and his magic isn't pony magic. We'd have to observe the magic for ourselves, but the moment that collar comes off and lets him perform magic... he could surge out of control. They've been restraining him like that for two years."
"That's horrible!" Her forehoof went to her mouth in shock. "Don't you see, Father, that's exactly why we can't just turn him out into the wild on his own? Here at the palace, we have you and we have Starswirl, the two most powerful unicorn mages in the kingdom! But what if you sent him away and he had one of those chaotic magical surges you're talking about in a small earth pony village? How could they defend themselves?"
That brought Father up short. Finally he said, hoarsely, "Your mother fell to chaos magic. I don't want such magic anywhere near you or Luna."
Celestia took a deep breath. "I dreamed her death before it happened, Father. I dreamed that she fought a monstrous beast, and he took her wings, and she fell."
Father went still. "Why did you never tell anyone?"
She lowered her head. "To what purpose? I didn't speak when I could, and Mother died. If I had spoken up – if I'd warned her—"
"Stop right there," Father said. He came forward and enveloped Celestia in a hug, as tears welled in her eyes. "Your mother died a hero, protecting all Equestria from that monster. She knew she might die. And if she had known for certain that she would die... she still would have gone. She had an entire nation to protect, and two beautiful daughters she loved more than anything else."
"But if I had warned her—"
"Nothing would have changed," Father said gruffly.
For several moments he held her, neither of them speaking, as she tried to keep herself from crying. Finally Father said, "The spirit of chaos was a draconequus – a mixed-up creature with limbs of many animals, wielding terrible chaos magic. Do you not see why I don't want this... this creature you've rescued... anywhere near my precious daughters?"
"He's a child. He's not the monster who killed Mother." She disengaged herself enough to look into Father's eyes. "You always taught me that friendship is a kind of magic, Father. What if I could befriend him?"
"Celestia, the risk—"
"Do you think any ponies ever made friends with the monster that killed Mother? Do you think anypony ever reached out to him and said, 'you're safe here, we're your friends, we'll take care of you?' Because I can't imagine that any ever did."
"Are you saying that Mayhem was a monster because nopony wanted to be his friend? Celestia, he was the Spirit of Chaos. It wasn't his nature to have friends, or want them."
"Well, this is a colt, not a spirit of anything. And if you send him away, who knows what will happen to him? Maybe he'll be captured and tormented again. Maybe he'll learn that ponies should be hated and feared, and he'll grow up to be a monster too. But if he stays with us – with me – and we make friends with him... then even if it turns out he has such terrible magic, he won't want to harm us with it. He'll try to control it to keep us safe, because we're his friends."
Father was silent for a long time. Celestia added, "I dreamed of him as my friend, Father. I know I can do this."
"Because you dreamed it."
"I dreamed Luna's birth before I knew Mother was with foal. I dreamed Mother's death. And I dreamed this colt's voice, laughing with me, last night. His destiny is linked to mine, I'm sure of it."
"The Gift of Apollo..." Father murmured.
"Your words... have merit," he finally said. "But this is a probationary thing, Celestia. If he harms anypony, if he proves to have uncontrollable magic or magic he refuses to control, if he won't obey and cooperate, then he must leave."
"Yes, Father! Thank you, Father!" She hugged him tightly again. "I haven't dreamed anything terrible happening, so I'm sure you won't regret this!"
"I think Master Starswirl needs to talk to you about the Gift of Apollo," Father said. "I'll let him know."
The sun needed to be lowered before Celestia managed to find out what had happened with Mixup. Starswirl wasn't in the group today, which made sense; as a star-marked unicorn, he went between sun team and moon team as needed, and he'd been in the raising this morning. Father, also a star-marked unicorn, joined instead.
Once the sun was put away and the moon team got to work, Celestia went looking for Mixup, only to find that he was apparently hiding under her bed.
"He's faster than he looks," Starswirl grumped. "I had his collar removed while the cooks were feeding him, so he'd be less likely to surge and I could safely cast a suppression spell on him; his magic will return to him slowly, as his health improves, rather than all rushing in at once." He was briefing Father, not Celestia, on the situation, but Celestia was listening on the grounds that this was her new friend and also that it was her bedroom he was barricaded in. "Then I decided to have the doctor examine him, but before he could get anywhere near him, the boy was off and running. We managed to herd him into Celestia's bathroom, since her servants had already drawn her nightly bath and we thought that maybe if we got him clean, we'd be able to get a better look at his health without spooking him... but it looks like he can breathe underwater. It was an hour before he came up."
"Why is he in her bedroom then?" Father asked.
"Well, after he poured almost all her shampoo into the tub so he could make foam sculptures to play with, we decided to drain the tub so we could get him out. Telekinesis works on him now, but not well; he doesn't like it and even with the magical suppression spell I put on him, he has some means of countering it. It looks to me like he's literally breaking the framework of the magic, so it scatters without effect. The better we'd be able to see him, the greater the chance we could get a hold on him if he bolted again. So I had the servants bring in towels and let him dry himself with them... except he managed to pull some kind of sleight of hoof where he piled all the towels together, went under them, and then bolted with a towel in his mouth. Nopony saw him for a moment or two; we thought he was still in the towel pile."
Celestia smiled. "That's clever of him."
"Clever, maybe, but it means you'll have to sleep somewhere else tonight," Father said. "He's too wild, too unpredictable. It's not safe."
"I can get him to come out," Celestia said. "And I won't sleep until he does come out."
"It's still not safe—"
"Your Majesty, let the filly do what she's going to do anyway behind your back if you forbid her," Starswirl said. "The boy's magic is mostly suppressed—"
"He has claws, and fangs!"
"One fang," Celestia said. "He only has one."
"I'm not suggesting she sleep in the room either, not as long as the creature's loose and awake, but if she draws him out from under the bed, perhaps she can convince him to go to sleeping quarters that we prepare for him." Starswirl looked directly at Father. "He's not Mayhem, Starfire. He didn't kill Imbrium."
"I know," Father said steadily. "But he's of the same kind and smells of similar magic. Can you blame me for my caution?"
"Of course you want to be careful with my safety, Father," Celestia said. "Don't worry. I'll be careful."
Celestia collected supplies. This was not how she'd envisioned things going, when she'd first had the idea of freeing him and then of getting Father to let him live in the palace. When she'd talked him down she'd had ideas of how things would go, how they'd give him a bath and food and medical treatment and he'd be so grateful and happy and she could show him all around the castle and maybe teach him how to speak pony. She hadn't expected him to run away and hide under things.
But she was determined. She'd reached out to him in the first place out of compassion, but as soon as she'd heard his voice, she'd known. Even distorted by his terrible accent and the fierce emotion he'd been displaying at the time, she'd heard the voice from her dream, the voice she hadn't even been able to clearly remember outside of his laughter. She wouldn't be completely sure until she got Mixup to laugh... but she was sure enough. The dream she'd had last night, the one she'd gone to Luna about, the friend whose face she couldn't remember... but she remembered his voice. And it was Mixup's. She was almost completely sure.
As she entered her bedroom, the smell of scented shampoo hit her nostrils, and she wrinkled them. It smelled like he'd gone way overboard on the shampoo. Of course, who knew how long it had been since he'd had a bath? Had he ever even had a nice bath in his life? Had he even known what the shampoo was? She knew nothing about his life before the circus.
Carrying the bag of food supplies with her magic, she knelt down by the side of the bed. When she peered under it she could just barely make out a pair of golden eyes, glowing dimly in the darkness. "You don't have to hide, you know," she said. "We're friends now. Nopony's going to hurt you." No response. "I brought food for us to share. Would you like some?"
That got him to crawl far enough that his muzzle was sticking out from under the bed, his eyes focused intently on her. Celestia had cared for enough animals to know he would bolt if she made any sudden moves. "You seem like you might be a meat eater, so I thought maybe you might like some dried fish?" She levitated the smoked, dried fish jerky over to him.
He growled and swatted at it with his paw, tossing it aside. "Nroh nee!"
"Oh, that's right, you said you don't eat meat. Okay, so no fish." She drew a cheese wheel and a butterknife out of her bag, and sliced a wedge of the cheese out. "How about cheese?"
That got his attention. When she levitated the cheese wedge over to him, he grabbed it... and then scurried backward, back under the bed. Celestia sighed.
"You don't need to run or hide. I brought more stuff, you know. We could have a tea party." She set down two saucers, two cups and two plates. "Well, it won't really be tea, but we can pretend." On both plates, she arranged hay, a pile of nuts and fruit, a fresh salad with carrots and mushrooms, and a slice of vanilla cake with chocolate frosting. The muzzle reappeared.
"I just had a great idea!" Celestia got to her hooves – causing the muzzle to retreat back into the darkness under the bed – and began pulling books down from the upper shelves of the bookcase with her horn. They were large, weighty tomes containing classics of literature, there to be impressive more than to be read, and they'd been there as long as Celestia could remember. The books she actually liked to read were on the three bottom rows, where she'd been able to reach them before she'd mastered telekinesis. These ones had gotten most of their use in her lifetime as bricks for book forts, like the one she was building now.
Before long she had stacked three pillars of books in a rough triangle, or rather, a pentagon where the two closest bedposts, at the head and foot of the bed respectively, were the other two points. Then she yanked the top blanket off the bed, tied two corners of it to the tops of the posts so it conjoined to the canopy on the bed, and ran the other two corners to the left and right pillars of books. It stretched far enough that she could lay books on it to hold it in place, but not enough to complete the effect she wanted. Two other blankets added to the mix, tied to the middle of the bedposts by one corner and draped around two of the pillars, one to left and center and the other to right and center, and now she had a proper tent, held up by the bed and book pillars. The downy comforter folded at the foot of the bed and the various soft pillows at the head went to making a comfy place to lay down on. "There we go. Now we have a fort!"
"Aaaaooow," came from under the bed. It sounded more like a cat yowling than a word.
"I'm sorry, did you hurt yourself?"
"Aaaooow! Aaaooowt! Naaaooow!" The whole head emerged, a furious expression on his face, and his paw pointing at where the door was, beyond the edge of the tent.
"Oh – oh, wait! Are you saying 'out'?" Rapid nod. "Are you telling me to get out?" Another angry nod. "Well, I won't. This is my room you're in, and I have every right to be in any room I like anyway, as this palace is my home. But I won't hurt you, and I did bring you food. Didn't you see the food?" She pushed the plate slightly closer to the bed.
His eagle talon shot out and grabbed the plate, but when he tried to pull it back under the bed, she tugged it back. "No, no. I want you to eat with me. Come on out and have a tea party with me! I have a lot of drinks." Celestia levitated the ceramic jugs out of the bag and untwisted the caps. "You can have lemonade, chocolate milk, apple juice – oh, you like one of them?" He had crawled forward, warily, half his body out from under the bed now. "Point to the one you want."
He pointed. With a single, exotic digit. Celestia had to control a shiver of excitement at how strange and different he was. She'd seen griffins in pictures, but never met any – and while he had limbs like a griffin, his body shape was completely different. "Caa caooow."
"Chocolate milk? Very well, good sir." She took his cup and poured the chocolate milk into it, then levitated it back over to his saucer. He came out the rest of the way to take the cup, but was still crouched on all fours, tail curled around his legs with the end of it twitching, backed up against the bed.
The creature stretched his paw to grab the cup, drank it in a single gulp, then grabbed at the fruits and nuts with a paw and shoveled them into his mouth as fast as he could. He then devoured the cake, ignoring the greens and the hay. Celestia was still nibbling at her salad when he pushed the plate and cup at her. "Mroar?"
"You want more?" Another nod. "I'll be happy to, but you have to come out and sit with me."
The creature's eyes flicked to the left and right of her. Apparently satisfied with whatever he was checking, he crawled the rest of the way forward and sat up by the place she'd set for him. "Sssssiiih. Naaaoow mrooooar."
"That isn't the polite way to ask," Celestia said, pouring him another cup of chocolate milk. "I say, 'Would you like some more?', and you say, 'Yes, please.'"
"Yehsssss hfreeeasss." His sibilant s sounds were almost a lisp, but not quite – a sound more like a snake hiss crossed with the "th" sound than a real s. But he obviously understood everything she was saying, and had probably practiced speaking pony. For a creature that didn't seem to be able to make the same sounds ponies could, he was doing quite well.
She set his cup down on his saucer. "Now say 'thank you' and I'll give you more fruit and nut mix."
"That's very good," Celestia said encouragingly. "We'll have you speaking pony well enough that anypony can understand you in no time. Want more cheese?"
"Yehhsss hfreeaz." This time he'd managed to make the "z" sound that occurred at the end of please.
"You're doing very well. Try to say cheese. It's almost like please, so I bet you could do it." She levitated another cheese wedge over to him.
She poured herself lemonade. "So they told us your name was Mixup, but since you can't really speak pony, I don't see how you could have told them your name. Is that your name?"
He growled and shook his head. "That's a 'no', I assume."
"What is your name?"
He said something that she couldn't comprehend well enough to ever repeat it. "I'm sorry, I don't think I can pronounce that. Would it be okay if I still called you Mixup?"
"Hmm. Let's see what nickname we can give you, then, until you're able to tell us your name in pony. What about Mishmosh?" He shook his head. "Uh... Hodgepodge?"
With an irritated expression, he went over to the center pillar holding the tent up and shoved it, knocking all the books over, and making the sides of the tent fall down. "That was rude!" Celestia snapped. "Just because I haven't been able to come up with a good name for you—"
He shook his head. "Naaaymuh," he said, scooped up a pile of books in his forelegs, and dropped them higgledy-piggledy.
Was he trying to tell her what his name meant? "What are you trying to say? Something about this means your name? Books?" He shook his head. "Well, if it's not books, then all I see is a mess." That got a smile and a rapid nod. "Your name is Mess?" This time the creature made a gesture she didn't understand, his thumb and foredigit on his talon held almost together, pinching an imaginary tiny item with a small gap between his digits. Celestia had no idea what that meant. "Do you want me to call you Mess?" The talon gesture again, and a nod. "Okay, that's a silly name but if you want that to be your nickname, I guess it's okay."
She used her telekinesis to repair the tent. Mess didn't help; he spent the entire time drinking repeated draughts of chocolate milk out of his teacup, a talon digit crooked through the mysterious rounded handle on the side. Celestia had always wondered what that thing was for; unicorns didn't need it and other ponies couldn't use it. Apparently it was so that creatures with opposable thumbs and digits, like griffins and minotaurs, could use them.
No sooner had she finished rebuilding the tent than the edge of it pushed inward, rustling. Celestia gasped, startled, and Mess dropped his cup, spilling chocolate milk on the blanket, and darted back under the bed. The blanket took the shape of a foal, and then a familiar blue leg pushed out from underneath it. In a moment, Luna had gotten her head out into the tent.
"There you are, sister! I knew you were awake!"
Mess stuck his head back out from under the bed, slowly. Celestia sighed.
"Luna, you're supposed to be in bed."
"But you're awake!"
"I'm older than you."
"But how am I supposed to sleep when my sister is conducting diponatic relations with a new race?" Luna asked. "I have to learn how to do these things because what if you hurt your hoof and I have to do things for you someday?" Mess, who had by now fully crawled out from under the bed, started chuckling.
"It's diplomatic, not diponatic, and I'm not conducting diplomatic relations with a new race. I'm trying to make a new friend."
"Oh! Well, that is a thing I should know how to do too!" Luna plopped herself down and started lifting the lids to the various ceramic jugs. "Hmm. Lemonade, chocolate milk, apple juice... where is the iced tea?"
"I didn't bring any. Iced tea keeps ponies awake, and it's late at night."
"I drink iced tea at night all the time."
"And your nurse is always complaining that you never sleep. Where is she now?"
"Nursey is sleeping, of course. She went to bed only a little while after the moon went up. I pretended to be asleep, but the moon is so pretty and big! How am I supposed to sleep through this?"
By now Mess was laughing outright. Luna grinned at him. "Do you like to stay up at night too, weird creature thing?"
"Don't call him that. He's asked us to call him Mess."
"He can talk now?"
"Not very well." She turned to Mess. "Say 'yes please.'"
"Mroar caacow." He pointed at the chocolate milk.
"He sounds like a cat," Luna opined.
Celestia ignored that. "Oh, right," she said to Mess. "Would you like some more chocolate milk?"
Luna laughed. "That doesn't sound anything like 'yes, please!'"
"But we would be just as bad at his language. Mess, could you say your name again? Your real name?"
He repeated it. In amidst the catlike noise, Celestia thought he'd said something like "Fuu tiaouh." She tried to repeat that back to him, making him laugh again.
"Futyaoeh?" Luna said, getting a lot closer than Celestia herself had.
"Ruuneh," Mess responded, pointing at her with a digit on his lion paw. Then he turned to Celestia. "Shressha?"
"Just call her Tia," Luna said. "I and all of her friends do."
"All of my friends and you. You don't put 'I' first, that's arrogant."
"I'm a princess. How can I be arrogant? I'm supposed to be in charge of everything. Except for if you or Father say otherwise."
"It's still arrogant," Celestia said. "How did you know about Mess? You weren't awake when I rescued him."
"Dihn reshkyu," Mess said. "Aii kod ruuss."
"I beg to differ," Celestia said. "Yes, you got loose, but the archers would have shot you for threatening me, except that I told them not to. So I did rescue you." She grinned.
"I brought toast," Luna announced, as Celestia poured Mess more chocolate milk and then gave Luna an apple juice. "It's buttered. I brought jams for it too." She removed a cloth-wrapped baguette from her own saddlebag, and pulled out a butterknife and a few small jars, then set the baguette down and opened the cloth. It was, in fact, a hot, toasted, buttered baguette, sliced in half longways.
"How did you do that? The kitchen is closed."
"Is not. The moon raisers and the night guard need to eat too. I just asked the night cook. Moon Cake always makes things for me because we have the same name."
Mess raised a furry black eyebrow. "'Luna' means 'Moon' in old Minosian," Celestia said to Mess. "It's said that a lot of our language comes from that region, including the word 'pegasus'."
Mess pointed at the bread. "Thoooass."
"Yes, that's toast. Do you want some?"
"Hfreess." He couldn't seem to manage the letter 'p'; he was making an overly strong "h" instead, huffing it out so it sounded like a cross between an h and an f.
"Do you want jam?" Luna asked. "I brought blackberry, peach, apple butter, orange marmalade, and strawberry."
Mess nodded. When Luna asked "Which one?" he pointed to all of them. Luna pouted. "I didn't bring that much toast."
"Here." Celestia broke off a piece of toast and gave it to him. "You can put whatever jams on it you like." She opened all the jam jars and set them down, with the butterknife next to them.
Mess did not use the butterknife. He scooped jam out of the tiny jars with a single curved claw from his talon, dumped it on the toast, and then used the back of the claw to spread it. He also covered the same slice of toast with some of every jam they had, overlapping in several places.
"Say thank you now," Celestia said.
"Sssangyaoou naaoow," Mess said.
"No, I didn't mean you had to say the word 'now', I meant..." She trailed off at the huge grin on his face and the small chuckle. "Oh! You're joking!" Her face felt warm. How could anyone have ever mistaken this creature for unintelligent? He knew two phrases in Equestrian and he was already using them to make jokes.
"I still think he sounds like a cat," Luna said.
"Yes, but we have to teach him to speak Equestrian. I think if he practices, he'll get to the point where everypony can understand him, even if he has a strange accent."
Mess shook his head. "You don't think ponies will understand you?"
He made a slashing motion with his paw while shaking his head. "Unrsssan, yesssh. Unrsssan aaarr."
"Understand arrr? I don't understand what you mean."
He rolled his eyes, looking frustrated. "Unrsssan raaiik hfoniie."
"Understand like a pony? But that's what I said."
He shook his head. "Nroh asssen. Saaoon raaaik hfonie. Saahmaaie."
It took her several seconds to get it. "You're saying someday you'll sound like a pony and you won't have an accent?"
Mess nodded eagerly. "Saaahmaaie."
"Well, you've got quite a way to go," Luna said. "Because I can't understand anything you're saying."
"There are sounds he can't make," Celestia said. "He's saying 'somay' rather than 'someday' and 'unersan' rather than 'understand' because I don't think he can really make t or d sounds, and he definitely can't say p, so when he says 'pony' it comes out sounding like 'phony'. And all his l sounds are coming out like r's."
"Hrakisss," Mess said. "Hrakiss ross."
That one was beyond Celestia's ability to translate. "Um, yes, I guess so. Would anypony like me to read a story?"
"I would!" Luna waved a forehoof in the air eagerly. After a moment Mess copied her.
"Okay." Celestia lifted the edge of the tent and slipped through it so she could see the spines of the books in the stacks she'd made. Most of the books she personally enjoyed probably wouldn't entertain a foal Luna's age, but most of the ones in the pillars she'd made were entirely too boring for any pony in her opinion, and she had no idea what Mess would like, but finally she found a collection of old folk tales among the books she'd made stacks of. She skimmed through it, and was delighted to see one she thought would work well for both of them.
She crawled back into the tent with the book, having replaced it in the structure with a copy of a book that wasn't even in Equestrian, and flipped it open to the correct page. "This is 'The Goat Sister.' Once upon a time there was a queen who was about to give birth. The king and all the court were eager to see the new little princess, but to their great surprise, the queen gave birth to a kid, a little goat filly. What was even stranger was that she held a wooden spoon in her hoof, and wore a tattered hood on her body. As everypony gasped in surprise, the little goat filly said, 'Oh, don't worry so much! My sister will be perfectly normal and beautiful, you'll see!' And as she scrambled to her hooves and got out of the way, the queen gave birth to the foal everypony had been expecting, a beautiful little princess."
Luna and Mess listened raptly at first, as Celestia told the tale of how Tatterhood, the goat princess, and Sweet Heart, the pony princess, grew up as best of friends and watched out for each other, even though all the courtiers spoke ill of Tatterhood behind her back, claiming that she was ugly, that she was evil, that her strange magic was monstrous and that the queen must have consorted with a goat to produce her. Then a prince who came courting Sweet Heart turned out to be a wicked warlock in disguise, who transformed Sweet Heart into a pig. Tatterhood took Sweet Heart with her on an adventure, where they came through many trials, to restore Sweet Heart back into a pony.
By the time she got to the end, though, where Sweet Heart was getting married to a prince who had helped them in their trials, and Tatterhood had just revealed to the handsome earth pony who was captain of the prince's guard that she could turn into a beautiful pony herself anytime she wanted to, but he told her he thought she was more beautiful when she was herself... both Luna and Mess were asleep, leaning on her respective sides. Or rather, Luna was leaning against her left side, and Mess, on her right side, had somehow managed to slither over her back in his sleep, so his head was now on her left side too, near her head, and his body was draped over her back.
Celestia sighed. If she tried to move, she'd wake both of them up, and it was so hard to get Luna to sleep at night, and Mess was likely to startle and hide under the bed again. Besides, the whole reason she'd filled the tent fort with pillows was so that they could sleep in it if they wanted to; she'd wanted to give Mess a safe den to sleep in where he felt protected from intruders, but also where she could interact with him, and, well, that was exactly what she'd ended up with.
It was far past her own bedtime, and the soft little pony with her downy feathers and the skinny draconequus with thick fluffy fur around his middle were both warm and cuddly, though Mess had too many bones that she could feel for her comfort and she was definitely going to have to help the cooks make sure he filled out. Celestia pulled a pillow close with her telekinesis and laid her head on it, putting her forelegs under it. Morning was coming soon, and she'd have to get up for the sun-raising. So she really should have gone to sleep hours ago. She certainly didn't have time to summon the servants and have Luna and Mess taken to their own rooms, even assuming anypony could carry Mess without waking him up and making him run. Besides, he wasn't dangerous to her if he was asleep. And that was exactly what she would tell anypony who asked.
She set all of the food supplies out of the tent with her horn, so the servants could get to them. And then she let sleep take her.
What a wonderful day. This morning she'd dreamed of finding a best friend, and now here he was.
This is the only chapter where Discord is this bad at speaking Equestrian. He may have a bit of an accent still in the next chapter, but as we all know, he will fully lose it while he's still a child and become completely fluent in Equestrian.
Discord and Starswirl's conversation in the draconequus language is heavily bastardized Chinese from Google Translate. The long-ma speak Chinese; the draconequui spoke a dialect of it that, frankly, wasn't nearly changed enough, but everything on Terra Fabula changes more slowly than on Terra Mundi. (The draconequui were in Amareica for three thousand years before dying out. That should be long enough to render a language unrecognizable, but I don't have enough skill with linguistics to mutate a language in such a way that it's recognizable where it came from and yet completely unlike the language it started as.)
Translations of the conversation in the draconequus language:
Starswirl: ("Boy. Do you want food?")
Discord: ("You speak my language?")
Starswirl: ("Not much.")
Discord: ("This had better not be a lie.") and then later ("The draconequus Way of Harmony.") BTW, the word "draconequus" is in their own language "small dragon horse", or "dragon-pony." The long-ma that they came from are bigger than they are.
Later, when he says his own name, it's "Futyaoei"... based on the Chinese "Bu tiaohe", "disharmony" or "discord".
Translations of Discord's mangling of the Equestrian language for people who do not have Celestia's patience:
"Yes. Let go! I kill princess! Let go!"
"I kill! Let go now!"
"Kill me! Princess kill too!"
"Lies. Lies, lies, lies! They knew! He knew!" His foreleg tightened even more. "Free me or I kill. Kill me? Then I free, and princess goes with me."
"Then do it. Free me."
"No key. Never supposed to come off."
"You... you understand me?"
"Yes. Yes! He knew! Killed pony 'cause she knew, she say have to free me 'cause I can talk, and he didn't want anyone to know..."
"He doesn't deserve it. He killed pony to keep secret!"
"Wha—no! I can take care of myself, I don't need—"
"I don't need you. I can take care of myself."
"Just need magic. Take this off me and let me use my magic."
"All right then."
"I don't eat meat."
"Out. Out! Out! Now!"
"Cacao." (word borrowed from the quetzalcoatls to the south, means chocolate)
"Sit. Now more."
"No." and then again "No!"
The talon gesture he's making is "close enough."
"Didn't rescue. I got loose."
"Toast" and then "please."
"Thank you now."
"Understand, yes. Understand all."
"Understand like pony."
"No accent. Sound like pony. Someday."
"Practice. Practice lots."