At Any Cost

“This way,” said Vinyl Scratch.

Octavia followed, worriedly. “Must it be so dark? The big hallways have magic light. This is Celestia’s palace, she can’t light all of it?”

Vinyl sighed, and gave her friend an exasperated look. “Tavi. Really?”

“Well, it would be nice. I’m going to chip a hoof, stumbling on something.”

Vinyl rolled her eyes. “And if you were proposing to seduce and distract the palace unicorns, then maybe it would be worth their while to light every little corridor and service entrance in the place, but you’re not, you’re going to distract a palace guard.”

“Please go over it again, Scratchie? I’m nervous.”

“It’s not you that should be nervous, you’ll be fine. You only have to keep him from looking up. It might be a challenge if Lyra makes a noise—she’ll be directly over you and you’ve got to keep that guard from noticing her. I’m worried for her. If she falls, she’s lucky if she just lands on the balcony in front of Princess Luna’s rooms, and that’s already a terrible drop. She has to get up to the observatory without being seen, and then make a running jump over to the roof of the chalet thing, and then climb down that curvy ledge on the front of it. It’s a really short jump… I guess…”

“She’s mad,” said Octavia. “That’s awful. How can she be doing this?”

“No, that’s not the awful part. If she misses the roof and also misses the balcony, there’s this one narrow walkway at least five stories down that leads to Princess Celestia’s quarters that she’d be lucky to hit.”

Octavia stared at Vinyl. “How could that be lucky? She can’t fly!”

“I don’t know, maybe Princess Celestia could save her even after she broke every bone in her body. The thing is, if she doesn’t hit that walkway… the Canterlot palace sticks off the side of the mountain. The Princesses’ quarters stick off the side of the palace. If she misses the roof, and then misses the balcony, and then misses the walkway to Princess Celestia’s place… she’s gonna have a lot of time to think about what it will feel like to hit the ground.”

Octavia paled, and said nothing.

“You’re right, Tavi,” said Vinyl. “She is crazy. But I think she can do it, and she’s dead set on trying. It really isn’t that big of a jump, and that roof’s got all kinds of stuff to grab onto, it’s like a gingerbread house. It’s just that if she falls, it’s ridiculously bad. I can get her through the service corridors to the observatory but there just isn’t a back door to where Luna is, so she’s gotta jump it. That’s where you come in—you’ve got to keep the guard from looking up while she does it and climbs down to the balcony. Then she should be fine.”

Vinyl paused. “Well… if she’s right about Luna, that is. I’d kinda like to ask Princess Luna if she’s really crushing on our minty-green girl. It’s gonna be pretty weird for Lyra if she’s not.”

“Oh, I hope she doesn’t hurt herself,” said Octavia. “Tell me again what I have to do?”

“You’ve got to wait until you see us up at the observatory. Then you sashay out and try to seduce the guard, or do whatever you have to do so he doesn’t look up. Okay? Stay hidden until that point because there’s no telling how long you can hold his attention. You might only have a minute or so.”

“Will he arrest me?” said Octavia.

“Tell him you’re lost. Tell him anything. Now shh… we go through that doorway, we’re outside on a balcony and you can see him. You don’t want him to see you, not yet! That’s why I’m not making magical light, okay? Now, real quietly… peek around this corner.”

The darkened corridor ended in a dim gleam of light—not direct, but the spillover glow from magically lit rooms, larger corridors, the light of the palace pouring out onto the balconies and walkways of Canterlot. It had the peculiar quality of magic illumination that it didn’t bounce around or spread out much—it illuminated what it meant to, and left the rest black as outer space between the stars. This gave a special drama and contrast to the palace at night, but it left the service corridors and unattended areas alarmingly dark.

Not for Canterlot, the warm spreading glow of a campfire. The crystalline sparkle of magic light made the palace night-life entrancing, but it wasn’t a glow to be shared with the surrounding blackness. It cost unicorn mages time and effort, and it stayed focussed on the subjects at hand.

Vinyl Scratch crept toward the end of the service corridor, and beckoned with her horn for Octavia to follow, and to look ahead—and her elegant earth pony friend showed her quality by slinking silently around Vinyl and peering outside in an unhurried, inconspicuous motion, without a flick of her ear or a twitch of her tail…

Octavia’s tail shot straight out behind her, like the cracking of a whip. Vinyl made a faint squeak of alarm and pulled her friend back out of sight, whispering, “Don’t jump! What is it? Is something wrong?”

The demure gray mare seemed stunned. “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh! Scratchie! Oh my!”

“Calm down, Tavi, what frightened you?”

Octavia shook her head, her mane rippling from the motion. “No, no! It’s not that. Oh, Scratchie! Look, look!”

Vinyl looked. There was a guard, a big pegasus, who looked very imposing and serious.

“I don’t get it. What?”

Octavia gulped, her eyes shining. “Don’t you remember?”

Vinyl glowered at her dear friend. “We don’t literally share the same head, lovey. It just seems like it when I remember shopping lists and things for you. What could you possibly expect me to remember about a big pegasus g…”

Her jaw dropped, and she stared at Octavia. “Oh, you are shittin’ me. No. Just no. Really?”

Octavia panted, beaming a crazy grin, and she nodded manically. “It’s him.”

“Just to make sure… you do in fact mean…”

“Yes!” squeaked Octavia, and then cringed, forcing herself to whisper. “That’s the one. That is the pegasus I was with that night. The one who cried out ‘fat mommy hips’. It’s him!”

Vinyl looked askance at her friend. “Yeah, well… that bothered you before. Think about it, does it make it better or worse that it’s him? What if he says it again?”

Octavia slowly smiled, and it was an amazing smile. It wasn’t precisely wicked, for she was too sweet-natured and soft-hearted for malicious intent, but it wasn’t exactly innocent either—far from it. Vinyl stared in awe. Her quiet, studious, cello-obsessed friend stood revealed as the mother of all seductive, sensuous mares.

“I guess it’s not a problem, huh?”

“Leave him to me,” purred Octavia.

Vinyl grinned madly, and did a little prance in place, forcing back a squee lest she be overheard. Then, she raised a hoof, and Octavia grinned back, peeking coyly sideways as she slapped hooves with her friend—and both ponies cringed and cowered a little at the clacking noise, realising their mistake, but nothing happened after that and they heaved a sigh of relief.

“You wait until you see us on the balcony outside the observatory, okay?” said Vinyl. “Don’t start until then. That’s a good time to start, ah, getting his attention. Okay?”

Octavia grinned and nodded, and Vinyl trotted off as quietly as she could, back down the corridor, leaving Octavia lurking in the dark, alone.

She brushed a hoof over her mane. She shook it out, and it fell in luxuriant deep gray tresses over her withers. She fiddled with her white collar with the pink bow, thought for a moment, and then undid it, and let it drop to the floor, stepping over it proudly naked. She thumped a rear hoof against the ground, and felt her ass rippling, that quiver that ran up one cheek and across into the other, and back again.

She was used to cringing at the sensation, for it spoke of her voluptuous mare hips and she didn’t normally thrill to them—but this time, they were her weapon, and she felt well armed and dizzy with confidence.

Octavia smiled to herself, and began to walk out of the service corridor with demure, ladylike steps, staring directly at her Royal Guard, who hadn’t spotted her yet.

It had felt so good to have him inside her, and she didn’t intend to wait. Once she got things going, she was certain she could hold his attention all night long if she had to.

Vinyl trotted briskly through the darkened service corridors, around corners and up stairs. She’d left Lyra near the observatory with the instructions to wait until Octavia was in place, and she wondered if she’d been clear enough about it—the besotted mint-green unicorn seemed frantic to pursue her would-be lover, and Vinyl ran through plans in her head: what to do if Lyra had already jumped for the chalet roof, where to look for some confirmation she’d got over to Luna’s rooms safely or, perish the thought, fallen and hurt herself.

Vinyl refused to think of it in other terms. Technically, if you fell thousands of feet onto rocks, it counted as hurting yourself, to the extent you were still a self at all. You’d resemble paint after that, but it would be dreadfully, though very briefly, hurting paint.

She saw Lyra’s dark form ahead in the gloom, and rejoiced, breaking into a canter. She’d waited, as she promised!

Then, Vinyl gulped, for Lyra wasn’t moving or looking around.

Vinyl ran up and peered into Lyra’s eyes, and the stray lovebird looked back at her tragically, which proved she wasn’t dead or comatose but explained nothing, so Vinyl prodded her with a hoof just in front of the stylish little saddlebag, and said, “What’s up, cutie? Your audience awaits.”

Lyra gulped.

“Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all…”

Vinyl’s jaw dropped. “Ya think? Since when was it ever a good idea? It was a cool idea—that’s different. What the hell is going on? We’re out on a limb here for you, now you’ve got cold hooves?”

Lyra sniffled. A tear rolled down her face. Vinyl stared.

“Start talking, toots. I thought you were so hot for Luna you could just about levitate yourself over that jump. Is it the jump? It really is not that far, not that you’ll ever get me to do it…”

Lyra shook her head. “No! It’s not that.”

Vinyl stared, one ear flicking in perplexity. She lifted her trademark shades with a hoof, the better to stare in astonishment. “Okay. This would be a really good time to tell me what it is, since it isn’t the jump and the risk of death and going fweeeeee-SPLAT and all. That I could understand! You weren’t even batting an eyelash about it before, and I explained what could happen. You said it didn’t matter, you demanded that I keep telling you my idea. Now what?”

Lyra’s lip quivered. “I… I… I don’t deserve her!”

“Shh!” cautioned Vinyl. She leaned closer. “Hey, I’ve given you as many tips as I could. I think you’ve got a pretty decent chance of tickling her fancy. I’m sorry so many of my ideas are mare-centric, I really don’t know how to be a hot sexy stallion but if she wants that from you, I bet you’d satisfy—hell, sweetie, I was pretty happy and I’ve had a lot of opportunity to compare, you know what I mean? What more could she want?”

Lyra shook her head again. Vinyl peered suspiciously at her.

“Is it that suddenly you don’t want the Princess? This is a fucking really special time to turn all fickle on us…”

“It’s not that either!” sobbed Lyra, and Vinyl sighed, and then hugged her with a foreleg.

“Come on, honey, out with it. If it’s not performance anxiety, and you’re still crazy go nuts in love with Princess Luna, and it’s not fear of falling, what the hell’s the matter?”

Lyra couldn’t answer. Vinyl prodded her again, more gently.

“Talk, oh unicorn of woe! Hey, I got lots of crazy-pony experience. I’m best friends with Octavia, you think I can’t work out what’s bugging you if I can get through to her? That mare’s a brick wall when she’ s hurting. You’re a creampuff. Tell me what’s wrong and we’ll make it better. Whatcha thinking about?”

“Rarity,” said Lyra dully.

“Okay, wasn’t expecting that,” said Vinyl. “What’s the matter? Afraid she won’t approve? Or maybe you’re just sad she dumped you, or something?”

Lyra turned her head, and gave Vinyl a reproachful gaze. “You don’t understand. She cried…”

“I’ve seen her do much more than that. So what’s the problem?”

Lyra gulped. “I… took her against her will. She wasn’t expecting it… I’ll never forget how she said, I need a good rutting, when it’s convenient for somepony! But all the same…” She trembled, her face working in dismay. “She came so hard, so very hard, but crying at the same time, and Trixie was so angry I thought she would kill me…”

Vinyl was shaking her. “Hey. Hey! You need to listen to me, kid. Listen, it’s really important.”

“What could you possibly say? I’m a r… rapist.”

Vinyl glared. “Whoa! Stop it. I thought Tavi was unhinged! I had you, remember? You’re a sweet young unicorn and very solicitous and stop talking like that, this instant.”


“No! Listen,” demanded Vinyl, and Lyra did.

“Those are the worst scenes,” said the jaded DJ. “The ones that are all kinky and then somepony misunderstands… it sounds like you didn’t get the chance to apologize. So you really hurt Rarity, huh? Treated her rough?”

Lyra nodded. Vinyl put on a grim look, like she was annoyed with herself for what she was about to say, but saw no alternative.

“Well, I’ve seen her stumbling out of a Fillydelphia club weeping, with her mascara running. I’m talking a special club, a very ‘special’ club, one I don’t take gigs at. A really rough club for very special customers. I thought maybe she was lost. You normally don’t talk to ponies that turn up there but I was worried so I went up to her.”

Lyra blinked. “What did she do?”

“She kissed me. She was weeping for joy. She’d just gotten worked over with a whip, I could see the fresh welts, she wasn’t quite finished with the orgasm, walked real funny, all wobbly. Made me promise not to tell, five minutes later.” Vinyl gulped, looking haunted. “Trust me, it’s okay if you don’t understand Rarity…”

Slowly, Lyra said, “But I knew that part. I wanted to understand it. I thought I was doing really well.”

“Oh, babe, that’s the worst! I hate when that happens. Listen, the worst thing is when ponies don’t or can’t understand each other. We’re islands, we’re trying to communicate. I communicate with a crowd of ponies every time I play and I still screw up sometimes just one on one. But do you know what’s even worse?”

Lyra looked at her, and Vinyl stared back with great seriousness. “Not to even try.”

“But to try and hurt and play rough…”

“I’ve seen a lot of ponies,” said Vinyl. “I’ve fucked a lot of ponies, which is to say been fucked by a lot of ponies ‘cause I like the stallions. I think I got a handle on you real quick. I bet you were trying to please Rarity. Am I right? Trying to please her by doing stuff you didn’t really understand. Eh?”

Lyra began to cry. Vinyl hastily wiped her eyes with a gentle hoof. “Uht! Don’t get too weepy, it’ll show. I was right, huh? You were trying to please Rarity, and it didn’t work. Or it did and it didn’t, I don’t understand that mare either. Her public persona is quite enough for me.”

Lyra nodded, remembering. “It did and it didn’t. I know something hurt her real bad, even though she got off. I could feel it, I never felt a vibe like that before. It made me want to run away. Um… which I did.”

“So would I,” admitted Vinyl. “Maybe it’s best that you not try to get with Rarity again. But now she’s got you all spooked? Worse than that, you’re doubting yourself?”

Lyra nodded again, and Vinyl said, “Let me tell you what I saw and felt when I had you. I felt a very solicitous lover, aching to bring me pleasure, doing it in a number of different ways, flinging herself into that without reservation. I felt enthusiasm, I felt appreciated, I felt like I was able to goad him on real good… um, I mean her, it was you but with a dick, right? It was real sexy and it did not feel like a rape. I’m not going to say why I know—let’s just say I’ve had a lot of very different experiences. You weren’t trying to hurt me. You weren’t feeling superior, or trying to make me feel bad, or doing weird shit just to put me off-balance… It wasn’t all about you. I don’t count getting all pumped up as part of that because I wanted to pump you up. I know the difference. You weren’t telling me how to feel—even when it was about feeling nice. You were listening. So was I, by the way, though I get a little bossy.”

Lyra hung on her words, eyes pleading for more.

“Thing is,” said Vinyl, “if you are with somepony and you’re not communicating, that’s important. It shouldn’t be too hard. Maybe you’ve never clicked with anypony before? That would be sad, but then no wonder you’re worried. Babe, when it works it’s not a thing to worry about. I’m not saying you have to understand every little thought but it doesn’t have to be a big struggle all the time, and you shouldn’t be living in fear of making terrible mistakes. If the vibe is that fragile then you shouldn’t be there. If Rarity is that fragile you shouldn’t be fuckin’ her—maybe she’s better off with other crazy ponies in Fillydelphia. And we don’t know whether Luna’s on your wavelength—but there is no way she’s as brittle as Rarity. I’m in awe you dared fuck her at all, I’d be scared to.”

Lyra nodded slowly. “She… liked me. Once. She was the one who took me in, not Trixie and Twilight.”

Vinyl regarded her levelly. “Maybe she still does. She might love you, in her way. Doesn’t mean that’s a good place for you to be—but it sounds like she was trying to make that connection, too. It’s okay to be sad it didn’t work. It’s not okay to condemn yourself just because you fucked up royally with one pony.”

Impulsively, Lyra reached out to hug Vinyl Scratch back, and Vinyl grinned, glasses askew. “Heh! Told you I could talk sense into crazy ponies. Got plenty of practice at it.”

Her eyes widened. “With… oh, shit. Octavia’s down there waiting for us to give her the signal. She’ll flip out. Are you okay? I mean, are you still going ahead with our plan that you wanted so badly? If not, we need to go fetch Tavi and tell her we called it off… and that’s actually gonna be a big disappointment for her, believe it or not…”

Lyra hesitated. “Um… you want me to?”

“I want you to be true to yourself,” said Vinyl. “What does that mean right now?”

Lyra thought, hard.

His eyes widened in recognition.

“Octavia! I, ah… What are you doing here?”

She pouted, a smile quirking up the corner of her mouth. “Aren’t you happy to see me, Stout Heart?”

“I… I thought you must be angry with me!” He blinked at her, wide-eyed and startled. “Is this your way of saying you’d like to set up another date?”

“Something like that,” purred Octavia, her eyes half-lidded. She prowled closer, feeling irresistible, flicking her tail from side to side, DJ Pon-3’s advice ringing in her ears. When your vagina was winking frantically and you were preventing the stallion from seeing it, you had to coax the scent out to where it could do its nefarious work on your enthralled victim.

Stout Heart gulped, catching the scent, and stiffened—but not in the way Octavia expected.

“Stop it—I’m working!”

She froze in her tracks, her lip quivering. “What?”

The handsome pegasus stallion’s face twisted in dismay. “I mean… oh, heck! I didn’t mean to yell at you. Especially here—when you’re assigned this post you’re cautioned to be solemn and meditative. The Princesses might be! Meditating, I mean. Please, Octavia—I really am happy to see you, but we’ve got to be quiet and good, I’m working and it’s super important, okay?”

Octavia narrowed her eyes. A hard case! It was reassuring that he’d turned around and begun apologizing—it helped her not panic. Even better, she realized she had his undivided attention, and that was the true purpose behind her presence.

She also realized she’d walked so far forward to meet him that she could no longer see the balcony overhead, or whether Lyra and Scratchie had appeared—and her ear twitched, sharply, at the realization.

Stout Heart misinterpreted this. “Oh, Octavia! I’m so sorry. You are the last pony in all Equestria I’d want to scold, or to make feel bad. I just have responsibilities. I hope you will forgive me?”

Octavia’s heart went out. The poor silly fellow! So devoted to his duty, yet so distressed that he might have offended her—and, perhaps, so vulnerable. She stepped demurely forward, stretched her neck up, and nuzzled his face.

“Oh, Stout Heart! Of course I forgive you. I never told you, but you gave me a very special evening.”

“I did?”

Octavia’s face was wreathed in wicked smiles, instantly. “Your heart’s not all that is stout, dear fellow.”

He blushed, dropping his eyes, and then caught himself and began scanning the horizon, though the darkness obscured it.

Octavia flicked her tail again, because she could tell from the quivering-hot-jelly feeling between her legs that she was exceedingly worked up, and she could feel herself winking again. It would soon be time to do the other trick Scratchie had taught her. She sniffed the air—and then peered around his barrel chest, lowering her head, looking under him. “My!”

Stout Heart quailed. “Octavia, please!”

“Funny,” she purred, “that’s just what I was about to say…” She ogled the bulky shaft that began to drop from his pristine white sheath, and winked harder, not with her eyes. Her tail lashed merrily. “My evening keeps getting better and better…”

“Not now!” whispered Stout Heart, eyes darting from side to side.

“Awwww,” said Octavia, lifting her head. Her gaze sparkled. “Do you remember, Stout Heart? You straddled me and you were so excited. Those big strong wings flapping so fiercely… and that cock swung over and it thumped the inside of my leg as you positioned it, and I just melted away, then and there.” She trembled. “So heavy and solid. Stout indeed…”

“Can we arrange for you to come see me after…” he managed.

Octavia licked her lips, staring up at him with a strange wildness, throwing caution to the winds. “I imagine that it sent a ripple through my bottom—like this!”

She frisked about gracefully, and stamped a rear hoof, holding her tail high, knowing what he’d see. That tender winking vagina, framed by masses of quivering mare buttock…

He gulped and whimpered, and she knew she had him.

“Please be so good as to thump it against the inside of my thigh again,” said Octavia demurely, but while she spoke, she backed up and began to press her posterior underneath him, towards that increasingly throbbing hard-on.

Stout Heart’s eyes were frantic. “I must stay at my post!”

“It’s a lovely post,” crooned Octavia, wriggling her ample hips, pressing backwards. She delighted to feel his sensuous hardness against her rounded bottom, gasped with pleasure as it rubbed her pony breasts, and she scooted back a little more and squeezed his stiffened cock between her rump cheeks, lovingly.

“Oh sweet CELESTIA!” squeaked Stout Heart.

“Yes?” came the calm, kind voice.

Stout Heart froze in shock, and Octavia wriggled out from under him, just in time to see Princess Celestia peer out the door of her humble, cottage-like outcropping below the observatory and guest quarters, and fly across the slight gap to land before them, inquisitive.

“Oh, hello, Octavia. To what do we owe the pleasure?”

Octavia thought fast, shielding her erstwhile lover’s body with her own. “I’m dating Stout Heart, Princess. I was lonely and I thought he might be lonely too. It’s so nice to see him again!”

Princess Celestia gave her a very sharp look, and Octavia met her gaze staunchly, telling herself there was nothing to fear. She and Scratchie were doing nothing bad, just… complicated. Octavia drew on her strange naivete and stubborn innocence, and she looked up proudly at Princess Celestia while hiding a Royal Guard’s erect penis and concealing his pre-come smeared deliciously on her breast and inner thigh, and she said, “Please don’t scold him, I promise he won’t distract you again with noises! He was just happy to see me!”

Princess Celestia’s ear twitched. She sniffed the air. “I should think so! Ah… Octavia?”

“Oh, be kind,” pleaded Octavia, “do!”

Celestia’s eyes widened. “And when, little pony, am I not kind? I ask you!”

“I mean…” began Octavia, and then ran out of words. Stout Heart quivered in mortification beside her, and she could not think of a way to say ‘please let me ride Royal Guard cock into the sunset, or perhaps the sunrise for the sun’s already set. Oh, and don’t notice the demented green unicorn sneaking into Princess Luna’s bed…’

She considered saying it, but it seemed counterproductive, so she stood silent and puzzled.

Princess Celestia sighed. She hesitated, and then she said, “Octavia.”

“Yes?” said Octavia happily.

“Please be advised, my dear little pony, that Stout Heart’s vision and hearing are on duty. He is to watch into the darkness, and listen, to provide warning in case some threat appears that I must be alerted to. Do you understand?”

Octavia nodded, strange innocent romantic eyes looking into those ageless, skeptical eyes.

Celestia continued. “I’ve always known you to be a good pony, Octavia, and I trust you although I trust Stout Heart far more. He is assigned this post because it is a duty and an honor, and I don’t like to see him unhappy… Will you promise me, Octavia, that you will not obstruct his eyes and ears, nor prevent him from carrying out the duty that has been assigned to him?”

Celestia’s face was a study, but Octavia’s was a poem. Her joy shone forth and bounced off Celestia’s fretful perplexity.

“I promise! I will not prevent Stout Heart from looking out into the darkness and stopping bad things from happening!”

Celestia bit her lip, something no living pony had ever seen. She could tell Octavia wasn’t lying, and she wondered what on earth had driven the elegant cellist to this. Then she remembered a few overheard remarks while passing by the Royal Guards’ quarters, and Celestia sighed with a rueful look, making an intelligent guess.

“See that you don’t, little pony. I am off to bed, and pray do not disturb me.”

Celestia hesitated, and then delivered a parting shot wryly. “After all, unlike you—I am not expecting some male.”

With that, she took to her vast wings and quickly disappeared into her rooms, shutting the door with exaggerated but polite firmness. From inside, they heard a faint sound, not unlike someone putting pillows over her head in a fit of pique.

“That went well!” breathed Octavia, entranced.

“How could you?” quavered Stout Heart, shattered. She turned to him.

“Don’t be sad! I can tell she completely understands.”

“I… wish you hadn’t come…”

“I haven’t come yet,” corrected Octavia happily. “As long as I don’t stop you looking out at the big dark nothing, I’m sure I soon will.”

“It’s not fair, it’s just not fair!”

“What do you mean?” asked Octavia. “I thought it was completely fair. And kind. And very understanding. The Princess knows I would not be bringing harm here, and I’m not. Only love…”

Stout Heart shook his head, despairingly. “No, I get that—I can’t believe it, but I get it—but that’s not what I meant.”

Octavia looked inquiring, those deep violet eyes drinking him in acceptingly, even in his dismay. “Then, what?”

He blushed.

“Can’t get rid of the… you know. You’re terrible. I thought my mind would snap when you did that. Now I desperately have to hide a… you know… and there’s no way I can get it to go away. Not now, not after you squeezed it between your… ngg! I can’t stand it. It’s not fair. What am I supposed to do now? How can I stand duty like this?”

Octavia’s eyes danced.

“I can hide it for you.”

Stout Heart shook his head, marvelling at the impossibilities the evening had brought him.

“I’ll just bet you can…”

Silently, like a little green ghost, the unicorn head peered over the balcony.

It was joined by another, which took one look and seized the first one’s mane in its teeth and dragged her back out of sight.

“They’re having a conversation or something!” hissed Lyra desperately.

“Ssh!” retorted Vinyl. “A conversation is exactly what they’re not having… Tavi, I kill you for this, you crazy pony!”

“But what will I do?” whispered Lyra.

Vinyl thought. “Okay,” she whispered. “We wait for your chance, and you get ready. You see the roof edge there? It’s pretty steep but you don’t try to land on it directly, you grab the edge. You’ll be out of sight of Tavi and the guard as soon as you get onto that ledge, the curving one that goes down like a slide. The balcony’s stone, any noise your hooves make hitting it will bounce off it and go up.”

“How do you know that?” whispered Lyra.

Vinyl Scratch rolled her eyes, behind her DJ Pon-3 shades. “Hello? You know what I do for a living, you don’t think I know what sound does?”

“Sorry,” said Lyra, still pressed low to the observatory balcony floor to stay out of sight. She peered at the target roof. It did seem close, appealingly close. It made sense that Vinyl thought she could make the jump. Lyra crept on her belly, inching closer, ready to peer over the balcony at the larger environment.

“Uh… hey… hey hey psst stop!” went Vinyl, but Lyra didn’t listen, and peered over the edge and down.

The target balcony seemed very far below—certainly not safe to jump, though the path from roof-edge to ledge to destination seemed possible. Then, as Vinyl crept up looking worried, Lyra continued to look down. And down. And down…

The roof edge wasn’t quite above the balcony. It was an overhang, it extended out beyond where the balcony went—in fact, the curved ledge had to be followed slightly before it reached the balcony. Instead, the roof edge dangled out over two walkways, far below. Except that wasn’t true… The covered walkway to the observatory, that they’d snuck through in pitch darkness, was far enough below that a pony would break her leg landing on it, but it would take a running jump even to reach it, for it curved outward as if politely skirting around the run-off from the chalet roof that covered Luna’s rooms. The lower balcony, on which Tavi and the guard were dallying, was even farther below, and just as far to the side but in another direction—off to the right, while the observatory walkway curved around from the left. And then, still farther below, was the open walkway to Princess Celestia’s quarters, whose pointy roof stuck its star-decorated spire (and, seemingly, weather-measuring equipment) right up to the level of the observatory balcony. But that, too, wasn’t directly under where Lyra proposed to jump. It was closer—a moderate running jump would easily lead to a horrible death on that stone walkway so far below—but it plainly wasn’t where you would go if you grabbed the chalet roof and slipped.

“No, don’t, please honey…”

Lyra ignored Vinyl’s pleas, and looked straight down, directly under the edge of the chalet roof. As she did, various baroque notions of stonework curved elegantly aside, perhaps with the intention of avoiding rain pouring off that roof, to reveal a yawning drop that went straight past the whole palace and disappeared into darkness and mist, an unguessable distance below.

The mist parted for a moment, and Lyra’s unbelieving eyes picked out a detail, far below, still not directly under the roof-edge but the first thing that could be focussed on. It was hard to focus on it, because it seemed to be moving, and the perspective was befuddling. It was some model, or an odd sort of paintbrush, or something’s tail sticking straight up with fuzzy green fur…

It was a treetop, seen from above, languidly swaying in the breeze blowing through the valley below.

Lyra went white.

The next thing she knew, Vinyl was shaking her, and hissing in her ear, “I told you! Look straight across, it’s an easy jump, but don’t look down! If it wasn’t for that you’d do it in two seconds and not think twice about it. You can still do it, or I’ll bring you back out of here, but you just made it so much harder for yourself…”

Lyra’s teeth chattered, and her eyes were pinpricks. “So… far… down…”

“Told you so. I guess this is crunch time, huh? Time to find out how bad you’ve really got it for Luna. It’s totally okay if you need to back out. I wasn’t going to say anything,” whispered Vinyl, “but Tavi found sort of an old boyfriend. They’re probably kissing or something, she’ll be fine. So if you gotta bail…”

Lyra didn’t budge. Her eyes drifted back over to Luna’s rooms, and they yearned, they pleaded.

“Hoo boy,” said Vinyl softly. “Wow. You’re a better mare than I am, Lyra. Or maybe just more insane? Tell me straight up, which is it gonna be? Safety, or your princess nookie?”

“I must,” breathed Lyra softly. She trembled. “I must. At any cost.”

Vinyl shook her head. “I shouldn’t let you. Not until you settle down. Maybe not even then, you’ve got me doubting it now… it’s very simple, you jump maybe three feet and grab the edge of the roof. Not the bottom edge! The side, with that gingerbread crap on it. You twist around to reach the ledge, and then you scooch over a bit and you’re good. Look at how fancy that stuff is on the edge, lots of stuff to grab onto, just wrap your legs around it and you won’t slip. Or we could go home.”

Lyra blinked. “What? No…”

“Well, we’ll have to go home anyway if Tavi isn’t making conversation. I expected better from her, she knows she has to cover our sounds. They’re pretty far down but you’ll still make a noise when you hit… the roof, I mean! I don’t know how loud. If they’re kissing, that’s not very useful.”

Vinyl crept over to the front of the observatory balcony, and peered over, furtively. “I don’t think they’re kissing. She’s facing the wrong direc…” Her jaw dropped. “Oh, no fucking way.”

“What?” squeaked Lyra.

“Ssh! I don’t believe this. You might only have a moment. Listen for it. I’ve lived with Tavi for years, and this isn’t the first guy she’s brought home—though she said he was kinda special. I know her ways. If she’s doing what I think she’s doing, there’s one moment where she’ll start panting real loud and making kinda amazing noises and… listen, listen!”

From far below, Octavia began to whimper and moan.

Lyra’s gaze met Vinyl’s, and they stared at each other. From below, far below, Octavia began to pant wildly, and cry out in passion louder and louder.

Vinyl’s eyes were all shocked recognition.

“Two… one… now.”

Lyra turned, charged, and flung herself off the balcony into space.