The life of a superstar is not an easy one, Sweetie Belle mused as she waited backstage for the start of her next show. Oh, being pampered by everypony and making far too much money for the kinds of things she did was nice, of course, as were traveling Equestria and her penthouse in Manehattan, and all of the ponies cheering her name and wearing her merchandise just made her heart fill up with glee. Okay, really, most of the life wasn't that hard, but it still had its ups and downs. Many more downs, lately...
After she had left Ponyville, she'd been whisked straight to Manehattan under Sapphire Shores' tutelage. The Pony of Pop had taught her everything, from flare in her movements to how to refine her voice, but she had started small. At first she got her lessons as a backup dancer and vocalist for the aging star (though if somepony said Sapphire Shores was getting old they got a swift kick from the mare or a glare from one of her bodyguards), but soon came the big break, where Sapphire decided Sweetie earned a stage all her own. As an opening act for the fabulous pony, of course, but it was amazing the fire that little chance sparked.
Sweetie Belle had everything needed to be a superstar, and it had been instantly recognized. The pipes, the charisma, the innocence, the pizzazz: all of them came naturally. But the one thing she'd really needed, the one thing that Sapphire Shores had given her, was confidence. Not just in her abilities, which she had been denouncing since long before her big break in Ponyville, but in herself.
“Little Miss Sweetie Belle,” Sapphire had said to her as she panicked in the dressing room, her first solo act just minutes away,“I am jealous of you.” Sweetie could hardly bring herself to look confused for her heart pounding in her chest, but that wasn't going to stop the sassy earth pony from speaking. “You have everything needed to be the biggest shot in town and you can't even see it. Why, if I'd been as modest as you starting out, maybe there wouldn't've been all those scandals, or all those back alley bar shows.”
Sweetie looked at her mentor and friend with distrust. Surely Sapphire Shores had been discovered immediately and exploded onto the stage. “If I had been like you and accepted some help instead of running off on my own, maybe I could've started on stage instead of struggling in obscurity, but that's not here or there now. Now you are gonna go out there and sing for a packed house using them amazing pipes of yours. No matter what happens, even if every last one of them's blind and deaf and doesn't like you, you need to remember one thing.”
Sapphire leaned in close, grabbing Sweetie's cheeks and making sure they looked eye to eye. “You. Are. Sensational.” The fact that the word came without her normal singing somehow made it all the more meaningful. “You are the most talented young mare I've ever set my eyes on, and you need to stop holding yourself back. You are gonna go far, so long as you remember to follow your heart, do what you know is right, and give it all you've got.” Sapphire let go of Sweetie's head, hopping back and striking a dramatic pose as she pointed to the door. “Now get out there and strut your stuff, girl! That stage is calling for you, and you're gonna blow it away.”
And Sweetie had. Empowered by Sapphire's words, Sweetie let her own restrictions drop away, baring her heart and soul for the ponies watching, and they'd loved it. Once the word spread, she was the next big thing in no time flat. Record deals, tours, magazine articles: the works! The world was her oyster, and it had given her the most beautiful pearl she'd ever seen.
And all pearls lose their sheen, she sighed to herself at intermission, frowning into the mirror as she fiddled with a dull pearl on the sleeve of her costume. She lived in Manehattan, with the city running through her veins more than Ponyville ever had. She had even been on the front lines of the weather riots, down on the street with everypony else as a rallying point as strong as a princess for her adoring fans. She was even fully behind it when the New Lunar Republic pulled away, doing what she could to help rally support behind their Princess turned President of the Night.
Honestly, she couldn't have been happier, reunited with Scootaloo and working on the home front while her best friend defended it from those trying to take their freedom away. The only thing her fame had been taken from her was her friends, so being with her best one... It was like a dream. She might not have had the Equestria-wide scope she had before, but as she performed for the injured soldiers and civilians alike, raising spirits and making the New Lunar Republic a nation its residents could be proud to be in, she felt amazing. What could possibly go wrong?
Apparently a lot. Some nights she told herself everything would have just been fine if the Battle Beneath Cloudsdale had never happened... some nights she wondered if her fans had ever actually loved her, considering how quickly they'd turned... And some nights she could hardly sleep for the heckling outside her apartment. A little status painted a target on a unicorn over here, and hers was the biggest in the rebel nation.
Soon after Cloudsdale fell, the pegasi of the NLR, spurred on by the refugees from the Empire's persecution, turned on every unicorn they could find, giving them, in many ways, a worse treatment than most pegasi had received across the border. Rich and poor, loyal or fickle, unicorns were driven from their homes, some beaten or worse in the process, and no magic user was safe. Even Sweetie Belle, their beloved pop idol and loudest supporter of everything the country did, was heckled off the stage of her first show after the incident, dodging bottles and rotten fruit as she left with tears streaming behind her. As she left the theater, her carriage was stopped, nearly tipped and burned by the mob outside, until she was saved by her own knight in shining armor.
Scootaloo had heard of everything going on with the unicorns and, when she'd heard about Sweetie's show, she'd put two and two together and made her own way over. Her amazing show of strength and display of official NLR armor was more than enough to dissuade the mob and get Sweetie Belle safely to the Capitol Building in Manehattan.
Even there, defended by the top guard the NLR could muster, there was hardly a unicorn in sight. Most had been harassed into leaving, something even Luna did not blame of her citizens. Scootaloo didn't blame them either, asking flatly that Sweetie Belle join them in the Solar Empire for her own safety. Sweetie could see the fear in Scootaloo's eyes, the worry and the care for a friend she'd barely talked to in years... there was really only one answer.
Sweetie smiled as she looked herself in the mirror, removing the last bit of makeup before turning off the vanity lights and walking to backstage exit. Sapphire Shores' words had never left her mind, and as she recalled the show she'd just performed, giving everything she had for the ponies of her city, she knew she had chosen right. Sure, she was heckled and hassled outside, and sure, she would have been much safer on the other side of the border, but when the lights had come on and she started to sing, bringing nothing but cheer to the lives of the soldiers and civilians she performed for as they screamed her name in appreciation once more...
That appreciation meant the world to her, but even it was dwarfed as she walked tiredly into her penthouse, tripping at the door of her room and falling into the loving arms of her stalwart defender. Wrapped in the caring embrace of her knight in orange down, the one who had been there for her even as a little filly, she smiled. The life of a superstar wasn't an easy one, it was true, but it had led her here, and there was nowhere else she'd rather be.
* * * * *
The dark of night brought with it a new challenge for the trio escaping the New Lunar Republic, namely how to remain unseen as they moved. This near to the border, attempting to fly in contested airspace would be suicide, and moving along the ground held innumerable perils that wouldn't be visible until too late. Considered side by side, Homeward, Steam, and Wind all chose to go by ground, stowing away the Ready Wings for favor of their trusty hooves and keen danger senses.
Even this had additional problems. While Homeward's bag seemed a bottomless pit of useful items, in actuality it only contained one spare cloak, meaning that the third party member would have to improvise. On top of that, while none of them were particularly used to traveling on hoof after all their time in the air, Steam's legs were still used in the sky, so on the ground her muscles begged for any relief they could get. The solution to both issues, however, could be found in the same mare.
In order to hide her recognizable fluffy white mane, Steam Cloud's form was draped in the spare cloak, giving her the shape of any other pony from far away without the distinct point of a unicorn any other disguise would have given her. Meanwhile, Wind Key returned to her impression of her older sister, tying the bandanna around her neck and messing with her mane until it lay as neatly as the plant obsessed pony kept it, which, really, wasn't too much neater than her own way of wearing it, but was still a stretch. She also took on the burden of the Ready Wings, which, when folded up, did not catch nearly as much moonlight as when they were spread, and had the added benefit of hiding her wings fairly efficiently beneath the large backpack. Should they be spotted from afar, they would be three earth pony travelers crossing the border, nothing more.
Of course it would be far better than any disguise to remain unseen, and for that Homeward Bound led his two wards past The Roost, over a nearby hill, and when the path veered north, he continued to the northwest, entering into a rocky wasteland within minutes. Here the cool winter air whipped between the stones, chilling Steam's hooves in her horseshoes, though the cloak meant it did little else to her.
While she stumbled along on cold, tired legs, Wind had a different problem. As resilient to cold as pegasi were, frost was trying to accumulate on her fur and wings, and due to the nature of the load she carried, she couldn't do much to shake it off. Every minute in the elements brought with it more weight and pressing cold so that by the time midnight rolled around she was shivering far worse than Steam.
This grew into an even more pressing issue as the clouds began to thicken, rapidly blocking out the moon and stars and throwing all three ponies into the center of a blizzard. Snow and ice lashed at the traveler's faces, while wind seeped through every nick in their clothing and ran them straight through. Within moments it was no mere storm, as gusts of wind threatened to knock the young mares off their feet and stones began to fly past them into snowdrifts.
Fearing for their safety, Steam sidled up to Homeward, both ponies stomping through the suddenly thick snow. “Where did this storm come from?!” she yelled at the top of her lungs, her voice barely being heard in the cold, dry, raging air. Just opening her mouth stung her throat, but she continued for fear of worse consequences to the rest of her. “Is there someplace where we can wait it out?!”
Homeward's reaction was impossible to see through the dark and the snow, but his voice was just able to be heard. “The storm is wild! This land isn't monitored by weather ponies; it's of no value to either nation! We just need to press on a little further!”
Homeward continued trudging through the snow, but Steam stopped, looking around to find her other companion. It took a long while, but eventually Wind stumbled stiffly over a drift, snow clinging to every part of her body. As soon as Steam saw this, she rushed over, fighting the driving winds to be by her friend's side.
Wind had the bandanna over her mouth, steam rising with every breath she took, but with the way it was pressed to her face, she was able to get across the idea of a smile. Steam shook her head, lighting up her horn and letting the golden glow wash over Wind's face. Immediately the snow began to melt, color returning to the already pale pegasus's face as her parchment colored fur was revealed once more. However, as much as she appreciated it, her eyes shone with worry. “You need to stop the magic! What if somepony sees?!”
Steam shook her head again, keeping herself within touching distance of Wind. “Your warmth is more important! We need to go a little further, Homeward has a shelter in mind!” Wind just nodded, smiling once more at the kindness of her friend before they continued through the snow, following the barely visible tail of their guide.
Homeward had not been lying when he said they only needed to press on a little further, as less than fifteen minutes later he was waving them down, showing them a small cave hidden within some fallen rocks. On the outside it didn't seem like much, but upon reaching the entrance, Steam's magical light fell into a deep hole below, safe from the storm outside. All three ponies piled in quickly, and the sudden silence after the awesome noise of the blizzard left their ears ringing to adjust.
In such a well insulated confined space Steam's spell was much more effective, quickly getting the snow off of both cloaks and Wind's entire form, though the pegasus continued to shiver from the chill. Steam unhooked the clasp of her cloak at her neck, wrapping half of it around her friend as they both shared the heat of the spell and the fabric. Wind even leaned against her, whispering 'Thank you' in a voice far weaker than Steam ever would have wanted to hear it.
While it warmed Steam's heart to feel the cold fur at her side slowly be replaced with its warm counterpart, the glare she could feel coming from under Homeward's hood was chilling all on its own. “Do you realize how dangerous it was to light up your horn out there? You don't have any idea who could have been looking!”
Steam glared right back, offended that he'd take that tone with her. “Did you see how Wind was doing? She wasn't going to make it all the way here! She was hardly walking!”
Homeward huffed, angered that he was being challenged, though it was half hearted. “I believe she could have done it... Though I will admit the storm wasn't expected. There is often wild weather running off from the Everfree Forest, though something like this would suggest that they have started winter in the Solar Empire and the magic needed to shift the weather was built and amplified from the Forest's own magic...” He coughed. “In the end, you were right to do what you did due to the emergency, but if we hadn't had the cover of the very storm you were warding off, I would be worried that the entire last leg of our journey would be in jeopardy.”
Wind stopped leaning against Steam then, sitting up and looking at Homeward tiredly. “And what is the last leg of the journey?” Her voice was still weak from her ordeal outside, but already its strength was returning. “Because if we're going through, over, or anywhere near the Everfree in winter you are crazy. I wouldn't take my chances there on a bright, sunny spring morning, let alone a nighttime snowstorm.”
The smile that crept over Homeward's face only served to worry both young mares. “I am glad you asked. You see, I was remaining rather vague about how we'd get over the border because... well, you'll see for yourself.” He turned around after that, walking a little deeper into their hiding place until he reached the back wall. Once there, he tapped on it twice with his hoof, as though knocking on the front door of a house, before saying, calmly, “The Lady requests our presence at her soiree. We have no ties, we hope it's not a problem.”
Nothing seemed to change for a few moments, and Steam began to question the sanity of the pony that had gotten her this far, but just as she was contemplating braving the storm, a slat slid aside in the rough stone, a high pitched gravely voice coming from beyond it. “The masquerade does not require ties, though she hopes you do remember the theme.”
“'Diamonds are the ties that bind,' a classic, and yet so hip.” responded Homeward, looking into the slat at whoever was beyond it. “We hope the kettle is on, two sugars in our tea, if you please.”
“One moment while The Lady is summoned.”
The slat slid closed and, after Homeward counted something in his head, he waved an arm to the wall and bowed, offering Wind and Steam first entrance into the door created as the rock wall hinged back. “After you, ladies. And remember: proper courtesy is essential in The Lady's halls.”
Beyond the portal was torchlight, though its source was coming from behind the door. As Steam and Wind stepped through, still keeping the cloak over both of them for a hint of security in whatever was going on, they were greeted by the sight of a smooth, well kept tunnel. The whole thing was hewn from the very stone they were surrounded by, and yet it had been polished down until there was only a gently rolling texture to it instead of the jagged stone one would expect. When Homeward stepped in behind them, the door swung shut on well oiled hinges, all sound of the storm outside immediately blocked by its silent movement.
It was this absence of sound that caused Steam to turn around, though it was the beast following her that made her leap and shriek in fright. She was being followed by a massive hound walking on its hind legs, with arms made to tear through rock and teeth that could shatter iron. Its fur was jet black, making it sink into the shadows cast by the torch it held, but it had brown undertones running up from its stomach and down to its crotch. Around its neck was a small black collar, with emeralds embedded in it and a large diamond hanging off of the front. It also had on a vest, stylishly made of good material, in a deep forest green that complemented the beast's eyes, which looked intelligent and dangerous, as though appraising the frightened pony as friend or food.
Evidently it chose friend, as when it opened its mouth, it did so calmly, with the same high pitched gravelly voice from before. “I mean you no harm, little pony. I merely am here to show you the way.” With that it extended one of its... her, if the voice and form were any indication... arms and offered that they walk down the tunnel with Steam and Wind in the lead. At the sound of the voice, Wind looked to see what had made Steam worry and, wrapped together in the cloak, Steam could feel her jolt, but she managed to keep herself from jumping or looking scared. Instead they walked together, both of them ignoring the monster they had following them.
The tunnel was long, with offshoots and intersections all suggesting a great underground system, which, after the first few minutes of walking, was largely lit by sconces set into the walls. Once in the light, the beastly torchbearer took the lead, placing the open flame in a waiting socket on the wall and being a most courteous guide. In the better light, Steam could see the long black ears, listening alertly, but looking like a dog's the more she thought about it. In fact, in a way, the whole beast looked like a dog, even down to the stubby, knobbly tail curling up behind her as she led them through the necessary twists and turns in the narrow tunnels.
The walk continued on in silent for quite some time: more than long enough for the combined heat of Steam and Wind to be far too much for one cloak, causing them to separate again. It also continued long enough for Homeward to begin a conversation with their guard, though it was fairly one sided. “Ah, Cooper, right?” A nod. “I trust things have been going well in the tunnels?” Another nod. “Good! And you are keeping The Lady treated well, as she is to you?” Another nod, this time accompanied by a wagging tail. “Wonderful! Are you getting enough volunteers down here?” Cooper shook her head. “Not enough ponies coming through?” A small nod. “Yes, well, this war is truly wearing on ponies... They are starting to see it as the norm. I am hoping someday soon this problem will resolve itself.”
The group walked in silence for a few steps, and then Cooper sighed. “It'd be nice. Maybe then I could see this 'Ponyville' The Lady keeps mentioning. I wonder what it looks like.”
Homeward smiled. “It's the most beautiful town in all of Equestria, but a description won't do it justice. At least not with me being the speaker.” The familiarity of Homeward with his surroundings caused both Wind and Steam to feel rather out of place, like they were missing one big, long joke, and so they stayed silent for the trip, following patiently until they reached what looked to be a grand entrance hall, much like one would expect from a castle.
It was in stark contrast to the smooth tunnel they were just in, all made from carefully carved marble, tiled along the floor and creating ornate pillars that stretched from the ground all the way to a vaulted ceiling high above. On either side were what, at first glance, appeared to be stained glass windows, but a closer look revealed them to be murals created entirely of gemstones, depicting more of these beasts dressed in formal attire and looking quite dapper. Imbedded into the ground were three of the largest diamonds ever to be seen by pony eyes, glistening in the light from high above where the crystal chandeliers glowed spectacularly. The entire room spoke of power, regency, elegance, class, and, above all, welcome. Somehow, even in this cavern deep underground, there was the unmistakable feeling of welcome that made even the worried mares calm.
At the far end of the hall was a great door, and here Cooper stopped, turning to all three of the ponies. “Beyond is The Lady. Be respectful, be polite, and do not worry. You are all safe here.” The beast smiled, then opened the door, revealing the room beyond.
Instead of the throne room or the massive ballroom one might have expected, what was here was, quite simply, an office. It still had all of the qualities of the rooms they had just left, from the exquisite marble desk to the cool tile floors, but it was cozy, a place one could come into whenever help was needed and not feel turned away. Of course, the impressive map of Equestria drawn delicately in chalk on the far wall would probably cause a moment of awe, even when it was erased and modified, as it was being right now. An eraser hung in a deep blue glow, wiping away a line before a perfect piece of white chalk redrew it, showing the newest border between the Solar Empire and the New Lunar Republic.
With that done, both objects were put down, a smooth, singsong voice calling from behind the large chair behind the desk. “Sorry to keep you waiting! I was simply 'in the zone' and had to get that done.” The chair itself swung around smoothly, revealing a pure white unicorn with a deep purple mane and sapphire blue eyes. She had the air of perfect authority: grace under pressure and the readiness to take action. She also looked far, far more beautiful than the moonstone and garnet mural of her set into the wall to her right. As she looked upon the three ponies in the room, her eyes half lidded, revealing the blue eyeshadow, but also hiding the analytical intelligence behind them, she smiled warmly. “Ah! Yes, wonderful to see you! You certainly have grown up beautifully, Wind Key.”
Wind's jaw dropped, her mind unable to fully comprehend what was going on. “Rarity?!”
“Please, my dear. I must ask you to refer to me as The Lady while I am in my office.” Rarity then leaned forwards onto the desk, her confidence broadcasting out to the entire world. “Now, how may I help you?”
* * * * *
Sparks flew as metal and rock collided, gleaming off of both the raw emerald embedded within the earth and the steel pickaxe trying to free it. The pickaxe rose once more, its handle enveloped in a golden glow as it stopped, then rushed forward, smashing away more of the stone beneath it.
Steam wiped her brow with her hoof, her horn glowing brightly in the dim quarry, as it had been for hours now, and she still felt like she wasn't any closer to her goal. “You know, I appreciate everything The Lady's been doing for us, but I can't help but feel like we've been tricked.”
Wind's head poked out from behind the outcropping they were working at, her bandanna soaked through with sweat, though none of it was dripping off her face. “What? Like this is all some complex system to turn random ponies into mining slaves?” She looked around, her gaze going over to the other miners, all diamond dogs going at it with their claws, with nary a guard or overseer in sight.
Steam levitated the heavy pickaxe to beneath her arm so she could lean on it, the brief break letting her catch her breath from the magical exertion. “Well, let's look at the facts. We were accosted by a random pony who lead us on a wild goose chase through the New Lunar Republic only to take us into a dark cavern where nopony would ever find us and make us work for the creatures down there... Sounds pretty sketchy to me.”
Wind swung her pick one more time, embedding it in the rock and popping out a small sapphire, which she threw into the provided minecart nearby. After that was done, she turned to Steam, shaking her head. “That's crazy talk. For one, Homeward has done nothing but save our lives and protect us since we were chased out by the angry mob, and for two, it just wouldn't be a good idea. If they wanted to increase mining speed by a significant amount, the fastest way would be to either raid and enslave an entire isolated village or have more foals... pups... whatever they have, because they work significantly faster with no tools than we do with them.” Looking over at one of the minecarts near a diamond dog dig site, the fact that it was brimming with gems while theirs was hardly jingling with them only confirmed her case. Shaking her head, she picked up the pickaxe once more. “Pony slave labor is much too inefficient by comparison.”
Steam frowned for a moment, tilting her head as her mind processed the Wind that had just shown herself. She knew her friend was an avid tinkerer and engineer, and she had done amazing things with the battery and power conversions on the Ready Wings, as well as the base design and, honestly, most of the work aside from the engine itself, but it was still rare to see that intellect actually surface in such a blunt manner. Honestly, it was a little frightening. “Remind me never to get on your bad side... at least not from a business standpoint.”
Wind giggled as she swung the pick, the force behind it leaving a crack in the stone. “You don't have to worry about that. I've never been much of a business mare. I just know how to keep a machine running smoothly.” She swung once more, then froze as another thought occurred to her. “Also, if this were a slavery deal, we'd probably have chains and minimal comforts, not the luxury suite we were in last night.”
Steam nodded, though she looked a little skeptical. “I suppose that's true, but assuming it isn't a bait and switch, this far underground and considering we have no idea how to get out, chains and brutality would just be more work. It'd probably ruin productivity. You can only work a pony so hard before they break.” Realistically she knew that there wasn't a single thing happening down here that signaled that they were in any danger. However, realistically, she also knew that everything about this scenario was all wrong, and it didn't take being wanted by a whole nation just for existing to make her paranoid about it. And, unfortunately for her, that paranoia manifested itself in one rather annoying way. “Speaking of breaks, I need to go find the filly's room. Be right back.”
Wind pulled her pick from the rock, smiling at her friend. “I'll be sure to leave something to dig up when you get back.”
Steam rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks.” After that, she made her way through the quarry zone and back into the pristine halls of The Lady's Realm.
Coming from the cramped, rough stone of the work area into the polished, well kept halls of the rest of the place made it all seem even more unreal. Steam already had a hard enough time believing a pony could actually be as kind as Wind or as selfless as Homeward, but the generosity shown by The Lady was just ridiculous. The question had seemed simple enough: how could she help them? And yet, as Homeward detailed everything that was happening, what she was willing to do for them was just absurd.
Though they were wanted by the New Lunar Republic for the many, many crimes on the posters, a fact The Lady had already known, she wasn't going to turn them in. She had them in her power, at her mercy, and she was showing she had more than enough of that to go around. In fact, not only was she not going to turn them in, she had already promised them safe passage into the Solar Empire just outside of Ponyville, a well furnished room, running water, free meals, and the protection of her diamond dogs (as she referred to the intimidating but overall friendly beasts) for as long as they stayed within her halls.
There was just one catch. In return, they would have to work in the mines, finding gems and digging them out, until they had covered “a few minor costs of service,” as she had said with a friendly smile. At the time it seemed like nothing, but after a good night's sleep in a soft, warm bed and a hot shower that could have loosened up a statue, that deal seemed more and more suspect. How much were “a few minor costs of service?” Was this all a scam where the cost of luxury always exceeded the amount they could make? Why wasn't Homeward doing his fair share in the mines? Were they the first ponies lured into a trap, or just the most recent? And, most pressing of all, where the hay was that darn bathroom?
Steam trotted quickly through the halls, sure she had made a wrong turn at this point since neither the bathrooms nor their room were very far from the mines. But there was only one real option, and she would just have to keep moving until she found something familiar. She'd probably come across it quickly enough, right?
Of course, probably doesn't account for certain things. As Steam moved from hall to hall, disappointed that she couldn't find somepony, err, somebody to help her with directions, she picked up the sound of a voice. Getting slightly desperate for relief, the young unicorn picked up the pace, only to slow back down as she recognized not only the voice, but the one talking to it. “...nk you again for all that you are doing for us.”
The voice of Homeward Bound grew louder as it came closer, though it stopped around the next corner. Moments later, The Lady's voice chimed in. “Not at all, darling! What kind of a pony would I be if I were to leave my friend out there in the elements?” Every word from her mouth was sickly sweet, the kind that was welcoming at first, but only seemed to want something now.
“Average.” Homeward sighed at his own joke before continuing on. “Anyway, Rarity, I hope those two aren't doing too badly. They've been walking constantly for a few days, so I wouldn't be too hopeful for what they can manage in the mines.”
Steam froze, ears straining to listen for anything as she pressed herself up against the wall. As much as she wanted to see the scene and make sure she wasn't dreaming, she was much too worried what would happen if she was caught snooping. But this was exactly the kind of thing that would finally put her mind at ease... or make her start thinking they planned this all out to put her at ease... Maybe Wind was right. Maybe she was crazy.
Crazy or no, Rarity gave her her answer. “Oh, don't worry about them. Anything the dears can manage before they leave will be infinitely better than the last few ponies that came through.” She sighed. “I know I don't require anything, but a teeny tiny bit of work isn't too much to ask, is it? Though I am curious as to why you asked me to make it mandatory for your companions.”
Homeward put her up to this? Steam thought as she pressed even more tightly against the wall. She could hear hoofsteps coming closer, though they quickly stopped. What didn't stop was the pressure the wall applied against her... things would not be pretty very soon.
The smile could be heard in Homeward's voice. “Because they've been through enough hardship that they needed a reason to start helping. If you had just requested it as charity, they'd have never left the showers. Since it's mandatory to start with, they may grumble, but at least you'll get your help. It can't be easy doing what you do.”
Is that what he thinks of us? Steam frowned to herself. What? Did she not come across as a nice pony? She'd taken in her friend off the street, for Luna's sake! Though... come to think of it, she probably wouldn't have agreed to the whole mining thing without coercion... But Wind would have... She sighed internally. Just one more reason Wind was a truly amazing pony.
Rarity's response was expressive, nearly showing the hair flip and head roll just through its lilting tone. “Oh, there are challenges running the single largest underground information and refugee network in Equestria, true, but they don't even begin to compare with maintaining my place as the top shadow fashion designer for the last five years on both sides of the border.”
Homeward chuckled. “Humble as always.”
“Just because a Lady is humble doesn't mean she can't take some pride in what she does. All things in moderation, including moderation.”
“Right... well, it's a boon for both of us. You get a few extra gems found for free and I get the help of the best mare in the business.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere, Homeward. Though that new moniker won't. I'm surprised nopony has caught you yet.”
“It doesn't need to last long. Just a week more, though that is where you come in.” There was the shuffling of papers and fabric which echoed faintly through the stone halls. “I need these letters sent to the addressees quickly, discreetly, and simultaneously. I don't know anypony who could manage it other than you.”
“Let me see them... Oh dear. Both Princess Celestia and President Luna? The heads of both their armies, key intelligence officials, a few important civilians... Roseluck? Do you think that's wise after all this time?... My, my, what are you planning?”
“That is what your letter is for, though I'm sure you could guess my plan by now. I hope to have it all done by Hearth’s Warming Eve.”
“That's only two weeks away!” hooves paced on the stone floor, and just the thought of movement brought Steam's mind to her own body. There had to be a restroom near, and she really shouldn't keep listening in, but there was something about what she was hearing. Secrets and clues that tugged at her brain until she was almost sure that, for once, she knew the hidden stallion she traveled with. She couldn't leave now, she just couldn't.
The pacing stopped, followed by a singsong voice. “Ideeeeaaaaa~! I do believe I can meet your request in one week's time, though it is going to be tricky...”
“I will gladly pay whatever is needed or help in any way.”
“No no no! Do not fret, darling, consider it taken care of. You just enjoy what little free time you have left with your companions.” There was a brief pause that seemed to stretch on forever for the desperate unicorn listening in. “You should be proud.”
“Why? I can't take credit for how amazing she is. I can only hope to keep her and her friend safe long enough to ask for forgiveness.”
At this point Steam's body was tired of being pressed up against a wall, and with her mind whirring as it tried to process all it had heard, it was too distracted to stop a soft whine of need from escaping her lips. Immediately after it happened she jolted herself quiet, but the damage had already be done. “Did you hear that?” said Homeward, his voice drifting around the corner.
“I believe I did... Perhaps we should investigate, hmm? It wouldn't do to have been overheard.” The sound of hooves on stone brought Steam's heart pounding, her eyes wide as she wondered what would happen if she were caught. It couldn't possibly be too bad, could it? She was only dealing with a master spy and a pony apparently high ranking enough to want to contact every princess at once... there couldn't possibly be consequences for listening in on them!
Steam's mind screamed in horror at each step, clenching her eyes shut as she expected at any moment to be discovered and pointed out. She didn't think her bladder would be able to take it... The steps went on forever, drawing out the inevitable until, finally, they stopped, The Lady's voice coming into clear resolution. “Aha! Just as I suspected!”
Steam's eyes shot open, ready with an apology on her lips, but nopony was there to apologize to. Curious, she took her chance, peeking around the corner. At the far end of the hall both Homeward and Rarity were standing next to an open door, what appeared to be a closet, within which there was a very embarrassed pegasus with thick black glasses and an equally embarrassed diamond dog, his tail tucked between his legs. Both of them still had limbs wrapped around each other, though they shot apart a moment later.
Rarity shook her head. “Zipporwhill, this is the third time this has happened. Remember, I entrusted you with the entertainment and supervision of the ponies here, not their guard. Please at least try to be professional and let Hercules get back to work.”
The pegasus shot up from where she sat, hovering just off the ground with wings that hummed and blurred with their speed. “Yes madam! Sorry, Lady Rarity, it won't happen again!”
“That's what you said last time dear, and I'll say the same this time as well. I have nothing against whatever choices you make in your free time, but on the clock, you work and organize for me, just as you claimed you wished to when you first came down here. A Lady never lies. Remember that.”
Zipporwhill nodded. “Of course, madam!” Immediately the pegasus was gone, zipping up the hallway and shooting past Steam without even noticing the young unicorn, though the unicorn definitely noticed the pegasus's blushing cheeks.
Meanwhile, Hercules, a platinum blonde shepherd looking dog, sat in the closet still, bewildered by everything going on. Rarity sighed, wondering why he hadn't taken the hint yet. “You get back to work too, Hercules.”
The big dog stood up straight, nearly smacking his head on the door frame in the process, though he managed to miss it by taking a step into the hall and saluting with a massive digging paw. “Yes, madam!” he said before quickly following Zipporwhill, a blush beneath his fur identical to hers.
Rarity watched him go, then shook her head, sighing happily. “The joys of youth... Though, at her age, you'd think she'd have grown out of it by now.”
Homeward chuckled. “At ours, you'd think you would have too.”
Rarity let out a horrified shriek, covering his mouth immediately with a patch of magic. “Don't you DARE even think about letting anypony hear you say things like that! Obviously I am still twenty two and not a day over.” She took a step back, flipping her mane so that it hung perfectly. “Don't I look it?”
Homeward sighed, mouth still covered, and then walked off, causing Rarity to follow him quickly, waiting for a real answer. As amusing, confusing, and enlightening as all of this was to Steam, her body reminded her one last time of why she was out here, and she quickly took her chance to move, soon finding the relief she so desperately needed. Now all she had to do was find a way back...
* * * * *
Steam Cloud had been silent about her encounter when she'd gotten back to the mine. She remained silent when the work was over and both she and Wind Key joined Homeward Bound and none other than The Lady herself for dinner in a diner that looked like nothing less than the classiest of restaurants. Both ponies and diamond dogs moved between the tables, taking orders and refilling glasses of water, while the low drone of pleasant conversation highlighted the refined music played by the string quartet in the corner.
Steam had simply picked at her meal, delicious beyond compare, and listened to the friendly banter between Homeward and Rarity. Who were these ponies whose lives she had stumbled into? Why would they take such an interest in her and Wind, who sat at the table silently as well, though she was too busy staring in wonder at the world around her... a slightly confusing state to be in, considering this was the second night in a row this had happened. After the conversation earlier, all possibilities of some sort of slavery ring had left Steam's mind, but that didn't make this any less mind boggling. What kind of mare could afford to keep an operation like this running? How did she know Wind? Or Homeward? And what was that quip about age?
Those questions bothered her all the way back to the apartment they had been given, with two plush queen sized beds, room service, and the single most impressive bathtub she had ever seen. The night before a shower had been enough to get the grime of days off of her fur, but tonight, with her mind and body twisted in as many knots as they were, Steam had herself submersed in a bath, the soothing scent of herbs in the bubbles melting all tension from her as she sank in to her nose. She was so lost in thought that she hardly noticed the hooves outside had come inside until the water next to her shifted.
Steam startled and climbed partially out of the tub, getting a strange look from Wind as she did so. Steam matched it. “What do you think you're doing?”
Wind frowned. “Climbing in the tub. This was a cool idea and I thought I'd join you.”
Steam took a step out. “Without asking?! Maybe I didn't want you to be in here while I cleaned myself!”
Wind's frown deepened, looking out of place on her face. “You're joking, right? You gave yourself a sponge bath when I was crashed in your apartment and you didn't seem too bugged about it then.”
Steam looked away, cheeks red, before stepping completely out of the tub. “That was different...” She didn't make it two steps before she felt a tug on her tail, stopping her in place. “Please let go.”
Wind shook her head, shaking the fluffy white tail in her teeth in the process. “Nu-uh! Ew et ack in vif tuv right now an tewl me wafs wong!” Considering Wind wouldn't give up her hold on Steam's tail, she relented, climbing back into the tub and drawing a happy smile from the pegasus beside her. Sinking into the bubbles, she remained silent, which only brought out another frown from Wind. “Oh come on, I just want to know what's bugging you! Is it really so bad?”
Steam snorted, making a hole in the bubbles and causing some to flutter into the air. They swirled for a moment before landing on Wind's nose, her face too adorable for words as she tried to focus on the bubbles for a moment before they popped. With the smile that brought to her face, she felt more compelled to speak. “I was just thinking about The Lady... How does she manage something like this? This place is amazing!”
Wind looked slightly puzzled. “You don't know about Rarity?” Steam shook her head, not comfortable with apparently being so far out of the loop as she watched Wind duck under the water, coming back up a moment later with a new crown of bubbles. “Rarity was one of the ponies on the Council of Friendship. She was the Minister of Generosity or something like that. Apparently she and her friends helped Princess Twilight become a princess through... a bunch of stuff dad used to talk about. I don't know why she still looks like she did when I was a filly, but she was always really nice. This is just that on a big scale.”
It was then that everything clicked. “Wait, she's the Rarity? As in the Element of Generosity Rarity?” Wind nodded. “And your dad knew her... and Princess Luna, and Princess Celestia... Is there anypony your dad didn't know?”
Wind laughed at that. “Pretty much no, and I got introduced to all sorts of ponies and even some gryphons when I was really young. Which was weird, because nopony came over and he didn't throw parties or anything, he just sorta knew all kinds of ponies.” Wind shrugged. “But then, mom was in Ponyville even before everypony got all famous with Elements of Harmony and saving the world and stuff, so she knew them all too. I'm almost positive everypony knew them to some degree.”
Steam thought for a moment, letting the soothing warmth relax her muscles as her mind wandered with this new information. “You know, I think my dad said something about running into them before, though he never liked to talk about it...” After another few moments, another couple thoughts connected themselves in her head. “I think my mom might have known your dad, because she was worried about him when the news story hit of him becoming wanted in Equestria, though she talked about him like he was an old friend.”
Wind tilted her head. “Huh... Then we might have met a long time ago and not even known. What's your mom's name?”
“Shoeshine.” The name came out before Steam could even think to censor it, and as soon as it did she blushed, realizing she'd just actually told somepony her mother's name. However, when she looked over to Wind, she wasn't looking triumphant or running off to use the information, she just sat there looking puzzled as water dripped from her mane.
After a while, Wind shook her head. “I don't think I ever met a Shoeshine... Though my mom might have gone off to see you. Every so often she took business trips to big cities. Did you ever meet Rose? Or she might have been going by Roseluck?”
Steam froze at the name, remembering the conversation she'd overheard before... So many connections simply clicked into place in her mind, bringing her to a revelation that just screamed to be made, and she almost did, but as she looked at Wind's inquisitive face, she knew she had to be sure. Disappointing her would be like snatching candy from a foal... The guilt would never fade. Slowly Steam shook her head. “No, I don't think I did...” She then sank into the tub, returning to silence as her mind raced along.
Wind slumped a little, sinking into the tub as well. “That's a shame... but you'll get to meet her soon, and I'm sure she'll like you! She'll probably even return the favor of you taking me in until we're able to contact your family.” Steam just nodded, hardly listening to the pegasus' words. To be honest, her mind was far away...
* * * * *
Trying to confirm her suspicions about Homeward was very difficult for Steam, particularly since she could never seem to corner the pegasus alone. Either he was nowhere to be seen, as was often the case in the mine, or he was seemingly ever present, but always with Wind or Rarity nearby. Now, perhaps there was a chance of confronting him with Rarity around, though The Lady had a way of changing subjects to suit her needs, but trying to confront him near Wind was just too dangerous. If she was right, Wind would be ecstatic, shooting straight from deep underground to over the moon, but if she was wrong... Steam didn't want to risk raising Wind's hopes just to dash them again.
Though dashed hopes were the least of Steam's worries as she ducked, barely missing a rock that went flying past her head in the mine. For the most part the work was safe, but every so often a rock would chip in just such a way that it could get dangerous. Following the rock's path back, however, she found a sight that made her frown. Wind was kneeling on the ground, panting heavily, her pick firmly stuck in the stone next to her. Both of them could see the gem she was so close to digging out, but she just didn't have it in her, and that was worrisome for the ever ready pegasus. “Wind, are you okay?”
Wind nodded quickly, still panting for breath and sweating profusely. “Yeah, I'm fine. Just overheated.”
Steam looked around the area, seeing that they hadn't drawn too much attention. It was probably better to go solve the problem now than let it get big enough to create a scene. “Let's call it an early one today, go back to the room, and figure out a good way to cool off from there.” She helped the appreciative pegasus up, letting Wind lean on her as they made their way from the area.
Before they'd gone more than a few steps, a rare sight appeared before them in the shape of Homeward digging out a small ruby from the wall. As they approached, he managed to pry it free, dropping it in a bucket behind him before turning to look at them. His voice was curious, but there was a note of worry carried with it too. “Tired already?”
Both mares shook their head, though Steam was the one to respond. “Wind got overheated, so I was going to help her find a good way to cool off.”
Homeward smiled, raising a hoof in an excited declaration. “I know just the place! Though it is a bit of a walk. Do you think you can handle that?” Wind nodded, causing the cloaked pegasus to smile even wider. “Wonderful! Follow me.”
Homeward led the two mares from the mining area, though he went down a side path before the tunnels went from rough to smooth. This was the edge of The Lady's area where there had obviously been expeditions for routes and other mining areas, causing a winding network of rough tunnels that now were very dimly lit. How Homeward could tell one from another was beyond Steam's imagination, but she continued to follow, even after Wind regained her strength and her breath.
Eventually they reached one very long path that snaked and twisted, only the flickering light of very sparse torches breaking the heavy darkness around the three travelers. However, as the path sank lower and lower, Steam began to wonder if they would all be swallowed by the earth. Finally, after much too long in the deepest darkness, the ground leveled out, the corridor turning one final corner before they reached their destination.
Wind and Steam both stood stock still, struck in awe at the sight laid out before them. After what felt like miles of rough, rocky tunnel, they were standing in an enormous chamber, their hooves sunken slightly in the cool sand as the sound of waves washed nearby and a small waterfall crashing in the distance. It wasn't the sand that held their attention, but instead the sky, or rather, the swirling patterns of the gentle blue glow that suffused the entire room. All around them, along the walls and as high into the ceiling as they could see, mushrooms grew, from tiny to truly massive, and all glowing a dark sky blue. Speckled between them were yellow bulbs and patches of green and grey lichen, each glowing their own intensity and, together, creating the illusion that the night sky had followed the ponies underground.
A drop of water fell from high above, splashing ice cold on Wind's nose and bringing her out of her stupor. She ran across the sand, dipping her forehooves in the water and smiling at what she found. The water was cool like a mountain stream, and without a moment's hesitation she leaped from the beach, her wings propelling her high and far until she dropped into the water bodily, sending a splash high into the air.
Steam was slightly more hesitant, looking over at Homeward. “What is this place, and is it okay that we're out here?”
Homeward smiled, nodding. “Of course. It was discovered recently, untouched until the diamond dog finished the tunnel system, and even she didn't know what drove her so far this way. Just yesterday I happened to be in Rarity's office when she got the news that the mushrooms were safe to be around. Once I knew about it, I had been wondering how I could show it to you two before we left... I suppose things just work out.”
Wind splashed and laughed in the water, and it was very tempting Steam to go join her, but it only took her a moment to realize that this was the opportunity she'd been waiting for. She turned to Homeward, her face determined to get her answers now, only to find him looking at her, a hoof already stopping her words. She pressed on anyway. “Homeward, I was wondering...”
“Don't. I know what you are thinking, and it doesn't matter.”
Steam felt like she'd been slapped in the face. “What do you mean it doesn't matter?”
Homeward sighed. “I promise to you that everything will be revealed at journey's end. We leave tomorrow, we'll be in Ponyville very soon after. We can all be a little more patient.”
Steam stomped her hoof, which was muffled in the sand and completely lost to Wind's laughter. “But don't you think she has a right to know? After all of this... after all the years she searched...”
“You're assuming that I am he.” Homeward was stoic, as always, a cloaked figure, even here in this hidden beach. Steam backed down, and with that Homeward softened. “Believe me, everything will make sense when the time is right. But, until then, even the smallest, most innocent actions could have unknown consequences, and I have been working on this far too long to see it fall apart this close to the end...” For the first time, Steam heard how tired Homeward was. He had been keeping up an act since long before they had met... this was nearly breaking him. “Please... enjoy this time. You will be glad you did.”
Slowly Steam nodded, backing away from Homeward and giving him a little space. He nodded back, smiling beneath his hood. As Steam walked back, her hoof touched the water, and the refreshing coolness immediately swept up her spine. Hearing Wind continuing to play on her own in the water, Steam's will broke and she turned around, taking a running leap to splash into the water. She surfaced quickly, only to be hit by a wall of water sent her way by Wind's wing. She countered with her hooves, doing her best to win the splash fight against a better armed opponent. When it was done and both of them were soaked, laughing together, Steam felt like there really wasn't any place else she'd rather be.
As she looked towards the beach, seeing Homeward staring almost wistfully at the pair in the water, her heart sank, knowing she wasn't the only one.