Ten: A Walk In The Garden
Windfeather's glasses kept slipping down his nose. Every few feet, he would have to stop, raise a foreleg, and push them back up with his hoof. His glasses kept slipping because the coat on his nose was slick with sweat, and his nose had been sweating because he was so nervous.
As soon as the small, bookish pegasus stopped to fix his glasses, he would immediately trot forward to keep up with Her Royal Highness, and because he was approaching her, he would do a quick bow, which of course caused his glasses to slide down his nose again.
Over and over he went through this pattern, his breathing ragged from the many starts and stops. Gradually, it seemed that Her Highness was walking faster and faster, causing Windfeather to work harder to catch up and remain just behind her, at her side. Now they had passed a trot, and were heading into a canter. Windfeather's glasses had become even more unstable, now that he was sweating not only from fear, but also from exertion. The glasses slipped down the pegasus's nose, and threatened to drop off entirely.
Suddenly, Windfeather saw, out of the corner of his eye, that Her Highness had stopped in place, and that he had inadvertently dashed on beyond her. He tried to stop suddenly, but his glasses slipped off of his face; he tried to catch them with his foreleg, which put him off balance. Windfeather made the effort to compensate with his wings, but by then it was too late; torn between trying to catch his glasses, stopping suddenly, and trying to stay upright, he found himself utterly confused, and in no time at all tumbled to the ground in a heap.
Sprawled on the pathway, his glasses on the ground, his wings unfurled and pointing in different directions, he looked up to see the placid, cold eyes of his regent, Her Royal Majesty, Princess Celestia of Equestria, staring at him. They were eyes utterly devoid of either contempt or compassion; eyes more than a thousand years old, ancient and alien, as distant from his own mortal gaze as his was from an insect in the garden within which they walked.
"Gotcha." The words were soft, the ghost of some ancient humor a millennium gone. To another pony, at another time, the jest might have been warm, even friendly; but this was not such a time, and Windfeather was not a pony that Celestia was happy with in the least.
Windfeather carefully used his hooves to place his glasses back on his nose, then clambered up from where he was laying on his belly. He closed his wings, and tried to regain some dignity, but of course his dignity was entirely gone now, and with it the last shred of the bravado and fire he had imagined he would show in front of Her Majesty. Doubtless, he realized, this was why she had done it.
The little pegasus trembled now, for looking around he understood where Celestia had led him. It was the Royal Gardens; beyond he could see the entrance to the vast hedge maze, tall and colorful flags slowly moving at the gate. But the maze was not what captured his attention, rather it was the many statues scattered around the gardens.
There were rumors about the statues, the perfect, uncannily detailed, life size statues; dark frightening rumors. It was said, in whispers, that the statues had once been living ponies; ancient Equestrians that had defied Celestia, or who had endangered her goals. There was no proof of this, of course, but the possibility made Windfeather feel weak in all of his knees, and he feared another tumble at any moment.
"Tell me again why over two thousand of my subjects cannot be accounted for." Celestia's speech was even; measured.
"I... I... I'm sure that with some... it's just that... I really feel that..." The carefully rehearsed cover story that Windfeather had worked on was in shambles within his head; he could remember nothing of it. He could find nothing of strength within him now, it had all been lost when he had stumbled.
"They cannot be accounted for because you chose to abandon them in the Exponential Lands." The cold eyes gazed down at Windfeather from far above his small stature, and thousands of years beyond his wisdom.
"You know, my dearest majesty, there is a reason for that, it's a funny thing really, I just couldn't help but..." Windfeather was stammering; originally he had intended to tell Celestia off, to inform her of her mistake. What had happened to all of that? How had he been reduced to this state?
"Tell me, in your own words, what motivated you to take your action." Suddenly, Celestia's eyes were warm and kind, her face a gentle smile. This threw Windfeather completely; he stood frozen, unable to decide what to say or how to say it.
Celestia just stood there, towering above him, smiling gently with those kind eyes. She waited, and somehow Windfeather knew that she would have no problem whatsoever just standing there, waiting, until he grew old, and his bones finally fell to the ground, dried out and dead, vines covering his remains. She had seen centuries pass as he watched the hours of a day. Windfeather decided to speak.
First, however, he bowed. Low. Of course his small round glasses slipped again, and so he had to push them up once more. He stood, his head still down, gazing up sideways at his sovereign like a foal caught with a hoof in the cookie jar.
"Celestia..." His voice squeaked like a yearling; he lowered the pitch of it, feeling embarrassed "I mean... your highness... I honestly think that there is a danger to our nation, a danger that perhaps..." How should he say this... how could he put it without appearing to lay the blame on Her..."your... ministers... may have overlooked, and that... well, I thought to take action to protect you, and our great country..." Windfeather trailed off, hoping for some kind of response, some suggestion of how Celestia was taking what he had to say.
Celestia just gazed down, with gentle, kind eyes, and a soft smile on her face, her sun behind her back, blinding him.
After a long while Windfeather realized he would need to continue; Celestia could literally wait forever for him to finish. "The newfoals, Majesty, they remain a threat to our culture, to our very way of life!" That was it! That was the old spirit! Windfeather began to remember something of what he had intended to say. It was coming back now.
"Those otherworldly creatures can never be Equestrians, not true Equestrians! They may wear our shape, they may eat grass now, but once they were carnivorous monsters who ruined their entire world! These are beasts that delighted in killing their own kind! They believe insane things, perform insane acts; they can never be trusted and they will never be free from the evil of what they truly are." Windfeather began to feel increasingly confident now. He would get Celestia to see, to understand.
Celestia remained still, the gentle, patient smile on her muzzle. She was listening, that was certainly true.
"Don't you see? Inside them, even if their outward flesh is Equestrian, their experiences and memories are those of monsters that kill not only their own kind but who slaughtered every other creature on their world! They are more dangerous than dragons, more vicious than griffons, more terrible than any hydra. They are an insidious evil, one that will corrupt our very society just with the stories of their world alone!"
Windfeather stood tall, more sure of himself. Celestia had not reacted in any negative way, perhaps she could be made to support his goals.
"Frankly, your Highness, trying to save such monsters was ill-advised. How can you expect such beasts to keep Equestrian traditions and ways when they cannot even keep what few ideals they claim to possess? These are creatures willing to scrape away entire mountain ranges, leaving only poisoned pits, all just to make a few bits to spend. They stripped their oceans bare, then devoured all the fish and animals until none were left! Virtually the entire population of their world has always been forced to live in abject poverty just so that an incredibly tiny elite can live beyond their means!"
Celestia blinked, once, still waiting.
"I am not alone, Celestia! I am slowly gathering together those that can understand the terrible danger that this foolish effort to take in such monsters represents. Together we have sent thousands of the... newfoals... to distant, random locations where they can never be found, and where they can never destroy the glory of our beautiful Equestria! Our number will grow, and with your support we can make sure that these alien invaders live their wretched lives apart from us - it is not my intent to harm them, of course not - only to keep them far, far away!"
Windfeather needed to catch his breath. His glasses had slipped again, so he pushed them up with a hoof. Celestia had not changed her expression. She had not reacted at all to what he had said. Was she even truly listening? Was she... mocking him somehow, with that stupid, bland expression on her face? Surely something he had said should have gotten some kind of reaction from her! But nothing!
"Listen you - this is not something that is going to go away. This is going to be a movement! I intend for this this... segregation... to sweep through all of Equestria! There are others who agree with me, and when I get back, all they need is a little organization to make certain, once and for all time, that "
Celestia's smile faded to a calm, ageless expression.
Princess Luna stepped out from behind a topiary. She looked over her work. He had not even felt it, he had not even known it was happening. Exactly as it should be.
It was a beautiful statue, wings unconsciously flared in anger and indignation, mouth open in impassioned discourse, front right hoof jabbing upward in self-righteous defiance. The statue stood now on a lovely pedestal, summoned into existence just after the work was finished, completing it.
Celestia leaned close and squinted at the tiny, round, stone glasses, perched on the end of the nose of the marble pegasus. She found them cute, so dramatic! The perfect touch.
Luna and Celestia, ancient as time, walked slowly back through the garden.
There on the left was Direspeaker the Rebellious, with her long, flowing list of 1,001 complaints to the crown; her voice had possessed an unexpected magical power to motivate the masses and cause them to march. She had nearly taken the old capitol, eight hundred years ago.
They walked by the Three Godlike Foals; accidentally born with some unimaginable level of magic, they had been small earth ponies that could fly and reshape reality itself; unstopped they would have innocently obliterated Equestria forever. Theirs was a tragic story; for they were too young to know the danger they represented, and too rambunctious to listen to any but themselves.
It was because of them that Celestia had not instantly and decisively dealt with Twilight Sparkle; despite her truly fearsome power, she might yet be permitted to live, if only she could learn enough compassion and self control to balance her potentially unlimited abilities.
Still, Celestia had come very close to attending to her, it was not that long ago. Time would tell; it always had, it always would.
Luna stopped, for a moment, to look at the Archer of Equilonia; her stone eyes still gazing in concentration on the deadly god-slaying shot she had once aimed at Celestia's left eye.
As they left the garden, Celestia gave one last look towards the Mysterious Starkeeper of long lost Phetlocknecia; every year she was given a fresh flag to hold, her stone one long since crumbled away, two of her stolen stars still beside her.
Windfeather was in superior company, far greater than he deserved. But order must be kept, and no ruler can brook open rebellion.
Indeed, thought Celestia, she would have his statue removed from Canterlot, and shipped to some smaller town or village, one more in keeping with his terribly low status. A nice statue always improved a town square so very much.
"What art thou going to do, good sister, to succor these dispossessed newfoals then?" Luna strode with unnatural grace along the pathway that lead to the castle.
"I shall do nothing. I shall, however, set the task to the Unicorn Corps, for now. Their order has grown dull over the centuries; they never should have accepted the orders of one such as Windfeather. It is fitting that they should correct this error, and it is my intention that they shall." Celestia, as always, spoke with a velvet voice, but beneath that melodious sound was always the iron hoof of Her absolute Order.
The two princesses walked past the armored, Royal Guards on duty outside the threshold of the palace Garden Gate. "You may allow entrance to the gardens once more. Also, send for the groundskeeper, there is a matter I wish to speak with him about; a matter involving transport of one of the decorations." Celestia smiled at the Guard; she always smiled at the Guardstallions when she gave them orders, it was automatic for her.
"Would you join me for some tea, sister? We could take it on the fifth balcony overlooking the garden; I don't think you've seen that view yet."
"Command then the repast; we shall attend."
With that, the immortal living goddesses of day and night began to slowly, gracefully climb the long and winding marble stairs that led up to their chosen place. They did this not because they could not fly, or teleport, or bend space and time around them so that the very substance of reality itself changed such that the fifth balcony happened to be where they were, but instead because it was slightly more interesting to take the longer path.