Chapter Nine: Asking For Nothing
Teacup walked in silence. Her saddlebags, bearing the chop of Provender Farms, were heavy on her back, filled with provisions for the journey. She and Petal were much better outfitted than when they had left the farming community of South Withers months ago.
Petal Confetti walked beside her, struggling somewhat under her own load, but determined that she not appear weak in front of her earth pony companion. Her new, city-bought saddlebags bore the custom design of her own cutie mark, a pink ribbon falling amidst a cloud of multicolored confetti. Inside her bags was more than food, water and candy, for she hauled books, two thick tomes and three thin volumes, all of which were about the study of magic.
They had finally left Hoofington, the city that had brought them such happiness for so long. But a chance discovery of a bookstore had led to disturbing knowledge that Equestria may not have been quite as perfect a realm as they had imagined: even here the necessities of authoritarian rule appeared to require severe solutions for the preservation of the security of the state, and severity is seldom a gentle or a kindly thing.
Did Princess Celestia, goddess-ruler of Equestra, really turn ponies to stone? The suggestion was there that those who had - in Celestia's judgement - abused the awesome power of magic may have been given a uniquely magical form of capital punishment; perpetual petrification. They had become statues in her gardens, reminders to all that her authority was not to be questioned.
There was no proof, nothing definite, nothing... concrete. But books both ancient and respected had raised the possibility, with some authors certain in the matter, and the thought that this was so had greatly troubled Petal, but even more greatly troubled Teacup.
For Teacup was driven by the consuming need to erase her human history, to erase her memories of once having been from a world of pain and despair. The experience of human life had scarred her, and she felt she could never truly be happy so long as any taint of that terrible place remained in her heart.
But Petal had begun to doubt the worth of their shared mission. Petal had noted the usefulness of their newfoal status, of the very thing that set them apart from all natural-born Equestrians. There was strength in those painful memories, and fierceness enough to survive even the horrors of the uncontrolled and chaotic Everfree forest. She was now alive only because Teacup had been empowered by her earthly past, and Petal herself had begun to catalog the ways in which her human history made her experience of Equestria a grateful joy that no native pony could hope to experience.
Before the two had left Hoofington, they had gone for one last afternoon in their favorite park.
Petal, feeling playful, had decided to try something that she had witnessed a tiny filly do when they had entered the park. Petal let herself drop to the soft, manicured grass, and began to roll in it, luxuriating in the cool softness. She squirmed on her back, giggling at the simple pleasure of innocent fun.
When at last she rolled onto her belly, legs splayed, mane mussed, she noticed a number of adult ponies looking at her. Instantly the part of her that had been human began to scream in her mind of judgements and condemnations. She had acted out in public, she would be seen as insane, she would be found immature, she would be judged foolish and childish and ridiculous. Images of human faces showing contempt filled her thought, and a dim memory of having been kicked by a cruel child on a playground for a similar act in her youth assailed her.
The adult ponies smiled. Two of them dropped to the grass and began rolling on it themselves. "Wheee! Oh, this IS fun!" one exclaimed.
Petal's mouth dropped slowly open.
Her heart began to warm. The discordant human faces receded in her memory. An overwhelming feeling of happiness and gratefulness filled her, for this was an inconceivable outcome. No scorn. No judgement. Just happy ponies rolling on the grass, adult ponies, devoid of anything but joy in the moment.
She looked around her at the park. Healthy green trees stood against a perfect cerulean sky. Wisps of perfectly clean, white cloud drifted in the distance, chased by colorful pegasai. Beyond the park a big, beautiful city, devoid of crime, or smog, or danger bounded her vision. And beneath her, a perfect lawn of sweet smelling grass.
Her senses flooded, her mind shorn of her previous darkness, she lay on her belly in a perfect bliss. In that moment, her mind could not help but compare this scene with her earthly life before Equestria, and instantly her joy compounded. She began to weep, tears rolling out of her large, shining eyes, in gratitude for existing in a moment such as this.
That which the native Equestrians saw as normal, she saw as extraordinary, for her, the ordinary was a precious, exotic gift. Even the most trivial of things could bring her the delight of unearthly wonder.
Equestria was a marvelous and magical fairyland, but she alone, as a newfoal, could experience each day as the exquisite wonder it truly was; native Equestrians saw only another day, no different than the last. They had nothing to compare their world with, save itself.
She would lose that precious gift, if she lost the comparison between Equestria and the extinguished Earth. It is true she might feel less apart, but she would also lose the specialness of her unique point of view.
This awareness had begun to trouble her, as she and Teacup walked.
Ahead was Ponyville, a small town famed for its apples, and its library, which had been constructed inside the hollows of a gigantic tree. Here, it was said, Celestia herself sponsored the librarian, with books that occasionally rivaled even the collection inside of Canterlot castle itself.
Petal had met the librarian once, briefly, during her Conversion. Two of the original six ambassadors from Equestria had made a tour of the Bureaus, and one of the stops of that tour had been the very location that Petal had gone to to become an Equestrian.
But that was long ago, and it was not like she personally knew those elevated Equestrians, rather she had simply happened to exist in one of the places they had visited. She doubted that she would be remembered, and did not expect to be.
Teacup and Petal stopped just outside the town. Beyond lay thatched cottages, stone bridges and a decorative city hall, tiny in the distance like models in a window display.
"Well, what do we do?" Teacup wanted a definite answer to the question that had hung over them since they had left Hoofington.
There were three paths worth consideration to them now. One path would be to approach the Princesses directly, and ask them to erase their memories of earth, finally making them completely normal Equestrians, untainted by memories of pain and sorrow. But this path was uncertain, for the Princesses might deny their request, and that denial, lest they wanted to be imprisoned in stone, was doubtless absolute. Still, it seemed the better option to Petal.
Another path was to go to the library in Ponyville, and ask the librarian there, a former ambassador to earth, for her help. There was some hope that she might grant their request, but if she did not, at least they would not have faced the absolute denial of the Princesses. Petal had misgivings about this second choice.
The third option was to hide out somewhere, and for Petal to apply what she believed she had learned from the books she was carrying. Petal had acquired, finally, the basic principles needed to construct a functioning memory spell. The use of such magic was not difficult, in some ways it was even trivial; but the ease with which it could be performed did not reflect on the severity of what it represented, nor the power that it commanded. Petal felt reasonably confident that her custom spell would accomplish its task, but the consequences of using it filled her with concern.
Though she still did not know the full details, it was clear that magic which affected the mind was considered dangerous, possibly even subversive, and she did not want to incur the wrath of two enraged goddesses. Petal thought of the statues in the garden at Canterlot.
"Teacup... I have concerns. I have doubts..."
"Oh, THAT again!" Teacup had grown weary of what she perceived as cowardice, or at best, indecisiveness on the part of Petal. "We've come all this way, months to get here! No more nonsense, Petal! Come on, let's DO this!" Teacup stormed off, no longer willing to stand before the entrance to the town. It appeared that she had chosen the second option, and that was that.
Petal shrugged with her ears, and ambled on after. There was nothing more she could say that Teacup would listen to.
Ponyville was a pretty place, about the size of South Withers, but very different in layout. Above the town, high in the nearby mountains, Canterlot itself could be seen, built into the side of a vast cliff. The castle overlooked the valley in which Ponyville was set, and Petal felt as if the eyes of the Princesses were upon her neck as they made their way through the small town.
"I'm hungry." Petal said the words before she knew she had, and they weren't entirely true. She felt a hollowness in her stomach, but it was not from hunger but from some kind of dread. The moment she said the words, she understood that some part of her was simply trying to delay reaching the library, but perhaps that was not a bad thing. "Let's grab a bite first, then head to the library, Ok?"
Teacup was still grumpy, but she saw no harm in having a snack, they were there, close to a library that might very well hold the answer she sought. Perhaps a little food might help Petal feel more confident. Teacup needed Petal to be at her best, the unicorn understood magical things that she herself did not.
Sitting on hay-bale seats, outdoors, at a small eatery, Teacup thought about how close she now was to her goal. She remembered her decade at Provinder Farm and worried for Missus Provender and her husband Durum. She reflected on how much she had enjoyed her time in Hoofington, with Petal. But Petal had become difficult in the last week, constantly fussing over whether or not what they had set out to do was too risky. Her fears had come to annoy Teacup, and she could not understand why Petal couldn't understand that the necessity of completing their task outweighed any risk.
Still, she felt Petal had more experience of this world than she had, and it was better to get an important thing done right, than it was to try to rush and meet failure. More than this, Petal's attitude had started to get to her; she was pushing forward from fear that she would begin to lose her nerve.
They could never be happy, not like other ponies, as long as the trauma of earthly life haunted them! Surely Petal could still see this? A few months of fun in a welcoming city changed nothing. If she lost her drive, Teacup knew she would never gain it back. This was her one chance to cure her inner pain, and Petal's as well. Why couldn't Petal understand this?
Teacup reasoned that it surely must be because Petal had an easier life on Earth than she did. Petal had been safe and mostly alone in abandoned Michigan. She simply had no idea of what life had really been like for most humans back then. That said, earth was earth, and she had clearly been traumatized by her life there. This was absolutely for Petal's own good as well as for her own.
Their food arrived.
Petal, also lost in thought, began nibbling hay fries. Suddenly, she saw a familiar face.
A pink pony with curly hair hopped joyfully down the street. It was Pinkamena Pie, one of the ambassadors to earth chosen by the Princesses. Petal had briefly met her during her Conversion, and Pie had encouraged her. She thought briefly about going to her and thanking her for her kindness, but then stopped. There was no reason that such a famous pony would even remember her, and bothering her would just be selfish. Petal lowered her head, instead, so that her own pink mane drifted in front of her eyes. That was enough.
The snack had not taken much time, and Teacup was eager to get to the library. There was nothing to be done. Whatever awaited them, Petal could not delay it further. Reluctantly, she stood up and together they paid and left.
The Ponyville library had indeed been made from a hollowed tree, gigantic beyond earthly possibility, but this was not earth. Petal noted that the tree was still alive, somehow, and its healthy leaves spread above like a vast umbrella of green. A sign outside displayed the pictogram for 'library', unsurprisingly an open book, however this pictogram was fully illustrated and not the simple, abstract shape normally used in writing.
An arched, triangular door was set into the tree, and like all Equestrian doors, it could easily be swung open with a nod of the head.
Inside, a circular room greeted them, carved entirely out of the living core of the tree. Rounded shelves lined the walls, carved into the seamless wood, and stairs curved up to a balcony level. The library was small, quaint even, compared to any Hoofington equivalent, but in its uniqueness, it was beautiful, and quite wondrous to see.
"HELLO?" Teacup didn't know if this was a library where one was expected to whisper, or a library where no such rule applied, but she was here on a quest, and she wanted immediate assistance.
A small creature, the likes of which neither pony had ever seen before, descended the stairs. Teacup stepped back, quickly, preparing to fight if necessary; her experience in the Everfree had left her uneasy around strange creatures. It rapidly dawned on her, however, that the scaly entity was quite small, and it seemed very young. The creature had innocent eyes, devoid of malice. It was a little, purple dragon, almost certainly a baby.
"Hello! Oh! I haven't seen you before. New to Ponyville? Welcome to the library!" The little dragon stood proudly, his short arms gesturing at the sweep of the room "Name's Spike. What can I do you for?"
Teacup stepped forward "I'm Teacup, and this is my friend Petal." Teacup nodded at Petal "We are looking for someone who knows something about magic, and we've heard that the librarian here might have what we need."
Petal shifted uncomfortably. She hadn't told Teacup all the details of her Conversion experience, and she suddenly had a feeling that in this case, she just might be remembered by the librarian here, after all.
"Then you need Twilight! She knows more about magic than anypony in Equestria. Except the Princesses, of course. But other than them, she's the best!"
"Great!" Teacup was pleased. "That's what I expected from one of the ambassadors!"
"Ambassadors..?" The little dragon blinked "You... must be newfoals then?" Teacup nodded. "Wow, I haven't heard that used in, like, ten years. Hardly any newfoals around now, they all went to settle in the new lands."
The dragon called 'Spike' put a claw to his face "Hmmm... Twilight really should've been back by now. You're certainly welcome to wait for her. We have books to pass the time -" He waved at the room "but I suppose that's kind of obvious, isn't it? Um, is there anything I can find for you?"
"Not really." Teacup shook her head. Petal had suggested keeping a low profile until they could judge the situation.
"Actually," Petal looked around "If you have any books on memory and magic, it wouldn't hurt to take a look." Teacup gave Petal a glance at such an open admission of their purpose.
"Sure we do!" The little dragon ran to a ladder off to their right and carried it to a section off to the left. He climbed quickly, clearly he was experienced at finding books on these shelves. "OK, we have 'Better Memory In Just Three Spells' - that's one of Twilight's favorites - and "Memory Techniques Of The Unicorn Sages", Twi says that one isn't as good as they claim." Spike began pulling the books from the shelf, holding the increasing stack with one claw while balancing on the ladder. He was surprisingly good at it.
"No, no, thank you... Spike, was it?" Petal had clopped over to the base of the ladder and was looking up "I'm more interested in forgetting things than in remembering. Do you have any books on that?"
Spike was surprised "Forgetting? Why would you want to forget anything? It's hard enough to remember stuff that needs remembering as it is!"
"My friend here wants to forget her life before becoming a pony. It makes her sad to have to remember. It hurts her."
Teacup was stunned. Petal had just spilled all the beans, just like that, to this little dragon creature. Petal was the one who was so afraid of being discovered! She was the one that had been making such a fuss over anyone finding out. What was Petal up to? Or had she had some kind of change of heart? Teacup didn't know what to make of it.
"Well... that's understandable, I guess. I saw that world, back then, and it was not a nice place at all. I could never figure out why some of your kind wanted to keep it." Spike put the books in his claw back, climbed back down and moved the ladder a few feet. "I think we have something that might help, but I'll have to check. Forgetting things isn't a big demand subject."
Teacup crept close to Petal "What's going on? I thought you were so worried about anyone finding out?" she said in a low whisper.
"It doesn't matter, now, Teacup." Petal looked resigned "If Twilight can't, or won't help us, we either do it on our own, or we go to the Princesses, so at this point it really doesn't matter who knows. Twilight reports directly to Celestia, so she'll find out in any case." Petal paused for a moment "Once we entered Ponyville, our options were set in stone." Was that a smirk on Petal's face?
Teacup pondered this. "So that's why you were dragging your hooves. I guess it hadn't really sunk in to me that the librarian here had such a close connection to the Princesses. I mean I kind of knew, but.."
"Celestia is her personal teacher, Teacup. I thought we talked about this." Petal was slightly annoyed.
"Yeah, maybe we did, it was quite a few weeks ago." Teacup looked down "We were pretty busy in the city, you know."
Spike had returned down the ladder with a single book "Like I said, not much need for books on forgetting things. This is what we have: 'Forbidden Secrets Of Mental Magic.' Oh, that doesn't sound good. To tell you the truth, I think we should wait for Twi-"
"Hello!" The door opened, and through it had entered a purple unicorn with swept bangs and a light streak through her mane. She was floating a bakery box beside her, which she set down on the floor. "What's up, Spike?"
Teacup turned to face the new pony. She assumed that this must be Twilight Sparkle, one of the original ambassadors, as well as the student of Celestia. Because she had never seen any of the newsfeeds about the rise of Equestria, she did not recognize the unicorn on sight.
"Whoa. It's you." Teacup was surprised to find the purple unicorn staring at Petal "You're the one that wanted to be 'anything but a unicorn'." Petal seemed a little chagrined. "I'd never heard anything like that from any human before. Except for you."
Petal quickly changed the subject "We need your help, Ambassador Sparkle."
"Ambassador? No, no, no-no-no. Just 'Twilight'. I've tried to put those days behind me. That was a rough time, no offense." Twilight walked over to Spike and gave him a nuzzle. In doing that she noticed the book "'Forbidden Secrets Of Mental Magic'? What kind of help are we talking about here?" Twilight seemed a little wary now.
Teacup and Petal explained their story, the reason they had set out, and something of their adventures. It turned out that the box that Twilight had brought contained little dessert cakes from a local bakery; these were shared along with Teacup and Petal's adventures.
Finally Teacup pleaded with the purple unicorn to help her and her friend, begging Twilight to free them from the burden of remembering their earthly lives.
Twilight did not look happy. "I understand what you want, and I certainly know how to do it." Teacup was overjoyed! "But...."
"But what? You can help us!"
"Magic like that is classed as mind magic. Magic that affects the mind or the will is not exactly considered appropriate. I once made a mistake with that sort of magic, and I almost got in serious trouble with the Princess. Really serious trouble."
Teacup looked like she might cry "But we're asking you to do this. We'll take full responsibility for it. I'll sign a waiver, or write down that it was all my idea! I'll do whatever you want! We've come so far!"
"I'm not sure I feel that would be enough. I won't do anything that might make the Princess upset with me. I don't even want to think about making the Princess angry. I'm sorry."
Tears started to form in Teacup's eyes. This was the whole point of her journey, the entire reason she had left Missus Provender and the farm. They'd been through so much. She just wanted to be happy. Why did it have to be such a big deal?
"I'll tell you what..." Twilight felt sorry for the white mare "I could ask Princess Celestia about your situation. I could ask her if it would be permissible for me to help you. And if she says yes, I will!" The purple unicorn gave a little decisive nod of her head, and a little smile. "I should know by tomorrow, say about noon?"
"But..." Teacup was upset, but she knew when to shut up. "Thank you. That would be very kind." Teacup turned to Petal. "Petal, we should go and get a room for the night, let's leave and stop bothering these nice ponies." Teacup blinked "Ur... dragon. Pony and dragon. Sorry." she smiled weakly at Spike.
Teacup and Petal purchased a room at a local inn, just down the road. When they had gotten to their room, and set down their saddlebags, Teacup was frantic "You said you know how to do this stuff now, right? Right?"
"Teacup?" Petal was taken aback by her outburst.
"Celestia will never allow it. You said as much yourself, how it should have been done from the very start but it wasn't and how that was a sign that it would never be allowed and..."
"Teacup. Teacup! Settle down, hey... come on. Teacup!" Petal nuzzled her friend, and laid her head over Petal's back.
"She won't allow it and you can't fight a freaking goddess, there's those statues and we'll be stuck and..."
"Teacup...shhhh... shhhh..." Petal had never seen the sturdy earth pony act this way.
Teacup pulled away. "Petal. Erase my memory. Now. Do it now. You said you know how. So do it."
Petal stared at her friend "No. I won't. I won't do that. I'm sorry, Teacup."
Petal just stood, silent. Her gentle expression was answer enough.
"Fine." Teacup laid down on one of the two beds, facing away.
Petal did not sleep well at all. Her mind raced with the strange panic that had overcome Teacup. She knew that her friend had suffered a more difficult life on earth than she had. Perhaps she simply couldn't imagine just how terrible that life had been.
For her part, Petal had already decided that she did not want her memory erased after all. She had made her decision before they had left Hoofington, when she realized how much she treasured feeling such overwhelming wonder at this new world. Only comparison made that possible; if she lost her experience of her suffering, Equestria would become the only world she knew of, and thus ordinary to her, and that was a loss she felt was too great. Still, she was willing to help Teacup, for it was clear that the earth pony did not share her outlook.
For Teacup, her experience at the library had only seemed to confirm her worst fears. It was plainly obvious to her now that the heavenly realm she had believed Equestria was, had a dark and terrifying side to it. The gentle and loving goddess she had assumed Celestia to be had become in her mind a tyrant, capable of anything. She now fully believed that those statues Petal had spoken of were former subjects that had merely displeased the Princess; it seemed clear that Celestia was capable of capital punishment on a whim. This wonderland had become just another earth, ruled by sociopaths. She desperately wished she had never left the farm.
It was truly hopeless now, and Teacup had not felt hopelessness in over a decade. She had never felt hopeless even once within Equestria, until now. Gritting her teeth in her bed, she also felt she understood Petal now. Every pony for themselves. Petal would never risk the anger of Celestia to help her. Petal could have used magic to fix her already by now, but she had not. Teacup understood that. Petal would be a fool to risk anything. Equestria was just like Wilmington. It was just like Jersey. It was just like Earth.
That is what hurt the most, Teacup decided. Equestria itself had betrayed her. It was no perfect, beautiful world. It was just another Earth, only earlier in time, before the rise of Big Industry. Give it time. Skyscrapers and smog and organ thieves were just a few centuries away. Maybe another universe would rise and eat Equestria, one day, in turn. That would be fitting, she thought, before exhaustion stole her waking mind away from her.