by Orbiting Kettle

Chapter 1: Harissa

Zecora opens the terracotta oven behind her home and, using a blackened iron hook, pulls out a stone slate. On it lay a dozen small, red chili peppers, their skin blistering, a few charred black spots here and there. She sniffs at them, nods, smiling, and carefully picks them up with wooden tongs, placing them in a small ceramic vase. She takes a cover made from woven leaves and puts it on the steaming container.

The sun shone through the high windows illuminating the long and richly decorated room while a soft wind blew through the billowing thin curtains. A small zebra filly with a sun symbol on her flank sat on the floor, intently studying a scroll covered in complex symbols. An older zebra mare sat beside her. Every now and then she looked around, her ears swiveling when a voice or some other sound somehow penetrated the thick walls.

The air was fresh, pleasant, the subtle smell of myrrh and the rich scent of agarwood pervading the peaceful atmosphere. At one end of the room there was a stone platform. On it stood the Throne of Whispers, composed of vines, leaves and flowers all woven into a intricate whole, its ocher color the only clue betraying its nature as sculpted granite. For centuries the lifelike quality of the stonework had fed rumour about it being made from petrified plants. On the other end of the room there was a gate, wooden doors lined with iron and obsidian, ten zebras high. Two hoof-long bronze pictograms covered each door, the laws of the plains written out in the old language for everyzebra to see.

Turning without a sound on well-oiled hinges thick as a leg, the great gate opened slowly, pushed by two crimson-clad guards. A zebra mare marched in followed by two shadows in equine form, a golden ring around each of their necks. The mare seemed to be the incarnation of authority. A crystal crown carved to look like it was composed of ferns sat on her head, the light shining through it and surrounding her with a fiery aura, the crimson cape on her shoulders shining like the sunset in the desert. Heavy golden jewels decorated with intricate scenes and motifs clattered on her legs. The only exceptions to the staggering complexity of the regalia were five simple golden rings around her neck.

The filly and her guardian rose, and then bowed, their eyes closed. The crowned mare turned around and whispered the end of the shades’ stories in the First Tongue. The silhouettes trembled briefly, and then dissolved, their necklaces clattering on the stone floor. She gestured to the guards, dismissing them. They bowed, gathered the two rings, and then left, closing the doors behind them.

The filly opened one of her eyes, spying her surroundings. She jumped up and ran to the mare, calling out. "Mother! You are back."

The older mare smiled as she caught and hugged the young zebra. "I have returned, my little one. My travels were tiring but it had to be done." She mustered her daughter, a small frown creeping along her muzzle. "My dear Zecora, I’m glad you are fine, but for your sake, narrate in Rhyme."

The small zebra took a step backward and blushed. She scrunched, an expression of deep concentration on her face, the tip of her tongue peeking out from the side of her mouth. "Mother, I rejoice for your return, please tell me of... uhm... the other lands... under the sun?"

The mare laughed, and with a radiant smile, hugged the little filly.

Zecora walks into the large hollow tree she calls home, carrying the vase. Beside the eternally burning fire-pit, where the big iron cauldron stands, a few smaller pots sit on satellite holes full of embers, one of them filled with boiling water. She trots to the back of her house along shelves filled with jars, cans and little sacks of all colors, sizes and forms. She stops in front of a long hanging string, full with dried, long, thin chili peppers, their colors ranging from purple to orange. She stares at them for a few seconds before picking six from different points. She breaks the tip of one, puts it in her mouth and chews pensively. She turns around and goes back to the cauldrons, briefly stopping to get a hoofful of fresh mint leaves hanging from one of the wooden shelves. She lets the dried chili peppers fall in the boiling water and murmurs a rhythmic-sounding chant, tapping the floor with her hoof every few words.

Zecora felt hot sand under her hooves, her eyes closed, the reassuring weight of two golden rings around her neck. The air was heavy with the smell of dust and sweat. The sun hammered down on her. She moved her right forehoof, touching the carved staff that was stuck fast in the sand beside her. A cry from a distant hawk resounded in the silence. Then she heard hooves tapping on tiles and opened her eyes.

She stood at the end of a long sand pool, stretching for forty lengths in front of her and ten on each side. It was in the middle of the tiled floor of the fortress court, extending for another three hundred lengths in every direction. Distant high walls enclosed the inner sanctum, a heavy stone portal, big enough for a grown dragon, the only access. An old mare walked slowly from the gate in her direction.

Zecora glanced to her side. Hundreds of guards wearing thick chainmail stood rank upon rank, the different shades of color of their red capes distinguishing the various orders and protecting them from the unrelenting sun. She focused again on the figure before her, the ancient zebra coming nearer with a calm and calculated gait.

As the old mare arrived at the border of the pool, Zecora bowed. No words were exchanged. The rite had been unchanged for centuries; there was no need to talk. As she rose again, the old mare nodded, then threw six pebbles in the pool and chanted in the First Tongue.

Zecora grabbed her staff in her mouth, lowered her stance, tensed her muscles, and stared ahead. Around the pebbles sand began to rise and coagulate. Then the three globs grew and fused together.

Like a wave, the thundering sound of hundreds of hooves stomping in unison washed over the court: for a few heartbeats deafening silence reigned, and then the guards stomped again. Everyzebra moved together creating an unrelenting and massive rhythm like the beat of the heart of the earth itself.

The sand became a giant, rising mass. Clumps fell, revealing a gargantuan scorpion, ten lengths long, every movement accompanied by the grinding sound of shifting granules. The thing clacked its claws, turning to point at Zecora. Then it charged.

Zecora remained unmoving for an instant, then changed her grip on the staff, sprinted left, jumped and used it to catapult herself over the attacking construct. A claw swiped her pole from under her; she tumbled through the air, fell on the sand, rolled and jumped up to face her enemy. The scorpion began to turn dangerously fast despite its size. Her weapon lay under him between the skittering legs. She stared briefly, then ran again, trying to remain behind her adversary.

Zecora opens the ceramic vase, fishes out the cooled down cooked chili peppers and puts them on a chopping board. She takes a small knife, the dark wooden handle showing signs of age and use, the blade shimmering. With practiced ease she makes small incisions, the skin simply coming away with a few measured gestures. After she finishes, she repeats the whole operation with the boiled ones, the water having given them a meaty look, jotting down a few notes now and then.

Zecora laughed, feeling tears running down her cheeks. She was cradling a newborn filly wrapped in soft, crimson fabric: her daughter. The little one was enveloped in soft, crimson towels, and looked around curiously.

Around the new mother lying on a comfortable divan, scores of servants bowed, keeping their eyes low. Six zebras, one at each corner of the room, chanted in front of small burners while looking up to the glass windows, the blue sky outside, the aromatic smoke of frankincense rising in lazy curls, joyful frescoes depicting the Weaver of Tales in many of her forms and the source of the great River of Time decorating the walls.

Zecora couldn‘t care less about her surroundings, her whole world reduced to the small life in her hooves. She lowered her head to nuzzle the newborn. "My dear Obboroo, my beautiful filly, you bring so much joy, my little lily."

The door opened, and the queen marched in. Two guards followed her, while many more could be seen outside the room. The mare gestured, and the doors closed. Then she walked to the couch, servants shifting aside before her to leave an empty passage.

She stopped just in front of Zecora, a stoic expression on her muzzle as she measured mother and filly. She closed her eyes and began to whisper. A thread of shadow rose from the floor, and a vine of smoke descended. They met before her mouth, her voice weaving them together in complex patterns, until a small, ephemeral globe levitated before her closed eyes. As she opened her eyes again, she stared at the construct and watched it dissipate. And then she smiled.

Zecora looked at her mother, and as she saw her expression, chuckled.

The queen lowered her head, whispered something in the filly‘s ear, and then looked her daughter in the eyes. "She will be a great queen, in strife and abundance. Our land may be rich now, but will truly blossom under her guidance."

Zecora hits the garlic cloves with her hoof — a fast, decisive gesture — and puts them in a vase. After she does this for all four of them, she covers the opening, takes the container and begins to shake. A few seconds later she stops, turns the vase over and picks out the clean cloves, free from the peelings. She throws them in a mortar, adds the skinned chili peppers, a few mint leaves, a bit of lemon juice and a small cup of earthly colored spices. She picks up the pestle, and with calm, circular moves, grinds the ingredients.

Zecora, wearing four golden rings around her neck, stood beside the bed, looking intently at the old mare under the covers. Servants huddled around the room. In each of the six corners a blindfolded zebra chanted in front of a frankincense burner.

Her mother wheezed, and the breathing was ragged. She opened her eyes, a milky layer covering them, and looked up. She raised her hoof and gestured to Zecora. The younger zebra came near and lowered her head.

The old mare whispered something before Zecora nodded and stepped back. A servant came to the bed carrying a tablet with three mahogany disks. The old zebra looked sideways, moved her lips, a thread of smoke escaping her mouth and lingering there, and closed her eyes. Her chest rose a last time, then it deflated and stood still.

Zecora stepped forward, took with her mouth the first disk and, with great care, placed it on the mouth of the old mare. The lingering wisp of smoke began to permeate it passing through the wood like it wasn‘t there. She put the second disk on the barrel, the third at the foot of the bed.

The wisp of smoke extended with lazy curling to the second disk, then to the third, a thin haze covering the body of the old queen.

The chanting stopped. The fog under the ceiling began to coagulate and descend, joining the mist embracing the old zebra. It became more solid, took form. It rose again, and then in the room stood a royal figure, proud, young again, with a pectoral and a crown, looking down on the other occupants, gray curlings defining her.

She smiled and floated in front of Zecora. The young zebra bowed, and the eidolon of her mother took the smoke crown and passed it unto her daughter. As the construct touched her head, it dispersed in thin strands, circling around the muzzle of the zebra, before entering through her nostrils. The ephemeral figure nodded, and then faded away, evaporating in threads of smoke that slithered down and disappeared into the floor tiles.

Zecora rose while the other zebras bowed. She looked to the unmoving body on the bed, then turned and left the room.

Zecora picks up a small amphora, opens it, sniffs at it and smiles. She walks to the mortar, and carefully pours a thin trickle of golden-green oil. She takes a wooden spoon and stirs the red paste. As she works, she hums an otherworldly melody.

Zecora was clad in regalia, the crystal crown heavy on her head playing with the light and surrounding her with a fiery aura. Her expression was neutral, but her eyes barely masked her anger as she looked down from the Throne of Whispers to the enraged zebra before her.

It was an older stallion, wearing a blue cape embroidered with silver, thin golden chains loaded with small charms enveloping him in loose loops from head to rump. They clinked as he paced stomping before the platform. Other zebras stood behind him, clad in a similar style but in different colors — greens, purples, blacks and yellows. They glanced to the exit and at the guards standing along the walls of the room.

The blue-clad zebra ignored them, continuing his tirade. "...You are doing nothing to protect our subjects, or our wealth. These nomads roam free, ignoring our borders and our laws, and you, and your mother before you, let them be."

Zecora answered with a monotone voice. "The ancient law, the pact with our land, grants those privileges to the children of sand."

"Privileges that will ruin us. They gather incense and myrrh, sell it, and don‘t pay any tributes. They come clad in gold and finery and then contribute less than the poorest of beggars."

"You seem prosperous and well fed, with a long golden chain, you profess misery and need, but there‘s no strength in your claim."

"It is not I that will suffer, it is those I need to protect. These laws"—he points to the great doors—"are worthless when they become shackles for my subjects. You claim to be the protector of us all, but you and your ancestors failed to live up to that title. The capitol and your kin is a beast that leeches on us, and we will not tolerate it anymore."

Zecora stood up. Her voice was cold. "Galdaasa, you are free to leave, to move from these lands, but as long as you remain, the covenant stands!"

The stallion glared and stepped forward. The guards moved to form a barrier between him and the throne. He stopped, scoffed, and turned around. He looked over his shoulders. "You are the last blooming of a sick tree, and I don‘t think you can be saved." He spat.

The guards moved, but a gesture from Zecora stopped them. Galdaasa looked briefly over his shoulder, then marched out, followed by the others.

The queen was alone with her guards. The room was empty, and even the light seemed to wane.

Zecora pours the lentils in the pot where garlic, tomatoes, olives and paprika cut in slices are simmering. She adds a few cups of clear broth and stirs. As the legumes absorb the liquid, she pours a bit of water and throws in a dash of salt.

A young zebra sat in a small circle of older mares, three rings around her neck. The room was dark, and braziers in the corners burned aromatic herbs, emanating a heady scent that suffused the air. Before her sat Zecora, five gold rings forming a solid collar, a scroll unrolled in her front hooves.

Zecora murmured a few words, and the smoke began to solidify. A vision of a row of marching zebras, a flying vulture, a mouse running through the grass. She stopped, and the images decayed, the fog rising formless back into the air. She looked the younger zebra in the eyes. "Beloved Obboroo, now it is your turn: tell us a story, and give the spirits form."

She passed the scroll to her daughter, who took it with a nod. The young mare stared intently at the intricate glyphs that flowed across the parchment. She began to whisper. The fog, at first unmoving, began to tremble, the rhythm of the words dictating the pulse. A small strand descended, assuming the rough contours of a snake, before dispersing again.

The young zebra panted, covered in sweat, and looked up to her mother. Zecora was smiling at Obboroo, her back straighter than before.

Zecora fills the big bowl with flour, adds salt and a few cups of oil. She then stirs the ingredients until they become a single dense mass. She picks up a jug of water and dribbles the liquid onto the dough while she mixes. A couple minutes later, she pours the now almost solid glob on a table sprinkled with flour, and kneads it with her hooves.

Her armor was heavy. Her crimson cape barely protected her from the sun, yet it was not the weight of the metal that was crushing her. In front of Zecora a long line of zebras plodded through the gate of the small city. They were thin, on many of them she could see the ribs under their dirty coats. Dust and grime was a silent testimony of their tribulations. Some pulled wagons, others carried their meager belongings in bags. Stallions, mares, foals and old ones — the sad parade had no regard for age or health. The wounded were aplenty; the desperation was a bitter taste that permeated the air.

As the grim procession passed before her, few raised their heads, looking up with hope. Far more often, resignation and despair was all she could see on their muzzles, empty looks, low heads, not even anymore tears to cry. Zecora gritted her teeth, looking to the march of refugees, the end of which was lost behind the faraway hills.

She growled to one of her guards. "Go to the station, tell the iron lord to ready the train. My people shall be brought somewhere safe. They will not wallow in hunger and pain."

The answer was delivered in a flat voice. "Your highness, the iron lords are protesting your requisitions, complaining that the commerce is languishing and the northern trade-post warehouses are filled with stranded goods."

Zecora looked the guard in the eye. "Let them know, and understand, that they shall never cross my path, that if they dare to rise against me, nothing will shield them from my wrath."

The guard nodded, bowed and then trotted away. Zecora surveyed once again the never ending river of misery. She grinded her teeth, turned, and walked to the large palace in the center of the city.

In the court a small city of tents had been erected, soldiers marching or training, blacksmiths hammering on their traveling forges, mystics herding and shaping the flow of spirits. Zecora ignored them all as she went directly to a large structure in the middle of it all, a magnificent construction of fabric and wood, crimson banners proudly hanging on the outside, a millennium long history of glory and sacrifice embroiled in delicate writing in the tissue of the walls.

She entered the cold shadow of the tent and stopped and waved to the guards dismissing them. She sat down on a pillow, looking at the wooden circular table in the middle of the room. A map of sand there showed her whole reign and the immediate neighbors in exquisite detail. Blue sand for the sea in the east, green sand for the emerald oases in the middle of the northern desert, colorful constructs showing known armies moving slowly across the land. Her eyes rested on a small city on the side of a mountain, golden fields around it and a small river nurturing the region. And now there were small, hateful flames dancing on what once has been one of the many jewels of her domain.

Zecora uses the wooden spoon to put a bit of the cooked lentils on two hoof wide dough disks, a few dozen of them laying on the table. She folds them, enclosing the stew in small triangles. She puts another cauldron beside the fire-pit, and fills it with oil.

Zecora cried out, tears running down her cheeks. She was cradling a young zebra, her daughter, blood gushing from a long cut in the flank. Obboroo breathed in short, ragged wheezes, while her mother tried frantically to apply pressure on the open wound.

Two guards held down a struggling and sneering mare a few steps behind. A bloody blade was lying on the side of the large corridor. A pair of zebras wearing a dark green tunic and bloated saddlebags came thundering down the passage, they gently took the wounded mare from Zecora‘s hooves, and began to fret around her, a soft moaning of pain rising from Obboroo now and then.

Zecora took a few stumbling steps back and looked down on her blood covered hooves. Her panting breathing slowed down, she looked up to the struggling prisoner, and began to whisper. She took a step in direction of the guards, the shadows began to tremble. She took another step, dust began to rise in strange shapes. She took another step, the sound withered away, and silence curled around the incomprehensible words she muttered.

Zecora stood before the shivering guards and their terrified prisoner. Behind her shadows and dust whirled, with barely recognizable shapes of fangs and zebras forming and disbanding in a demented dance. She towered over everyzebra, her presence oppressive, her eyes hard, and with a chilling voice she asked, "Who sent you?"

Zecora cuts the white cabbage in thin stripes. She fills a bowl with it and sprinkles in oil, salt and orange juice. She tosses it a bit, then adds some rose flowers. She cuts a pomegranate in half, scopes it out and adds the tiny red pellets to the salad.

Zecora stood on a small hill, surveying the city below, the brisk morning breeze playing with her cloak. The long hot summer had left the grass yellow and dry, yet the fields below that surrounded the high, white walls, were criss-crossed with irrigation channels and ready for the third harvest of the year. No farmer was working on them, though; everyzebra had fled to the safety of the fortified city, the walkways brimming with the glinting of spears and shields, ballistas and crossbows.

The iron mask weighed on Zecora’s muzzle, not only for the metal itself, black and heavy, but also for the tight narrative etched on it, the threads of the story anchored to her soul and extending across the plane. Glyphs covered the inside and outside, arranged in spirals and waves, some of them burned out, some with fresh pigments filling them with color. The story extended to her armor and her cape, different materials for different parts. Her eyes were the only part of her that could be seen.

Zecora began to whisper, reared and stomped down, raising a large dust cloud. The glyphs shone, the dust began to whirl. Twelve missiles shot in the air from behind the hill, detonating in white, blinding flashes and clouds of smoke.

As the dust settled the shadows remained, an army of zebra-like shapes stood on the ridge of the hill, each with a small story written in glowing letters across its barrel. The billowing smoke coagulated into winged figures soaring above the land, changing their form like ebb and flow.

Zecora looked down on the city, on the defenders on the walls, on the abandoned fields, on the airy towers and the colorful banners flapping in the wind. She had been there many years ago. She had assisted to one of the traditional dances, a story of lost love that had almost moved her to tears. She remembered the amazing musician that had played for the banquet, one with a skill the like of which she had never encountered before or after, on whom she had bestowed the chance to open a school that had produced some of the most promising artists of this generation. She remembered everything, and then the shadows charged.

A sea of darkness rushed down the hill, winged nightmares made of smoke flying overhead with mute howls. The defenders began to shoot the crossbows. Somewhere their mystics intoned a tale that flickered to life to strike against the surge.

It was like throwing stones against a storm. The mass arrived to the walls, crashed against them and then crawled up to the soldiers. Spears and shields slowed the assault down, for a few precious instants there was hope, and then only screams.

Zecora walks around the clearing behind her home, setting up here and there masks, torches and intricately carved staffs. After putting up a piece of bark painted with white and green patterns, a spectral murmur rolls around the forest for a few seconds. Zecora moves back to the center of the clearing, looks around and nods. She closes her eyes and begins to sing a dirge. As the last note leaves her lips, a gust of wind washes over the area, rustling leaves for a few instants, then calming down again. Smiling the zebra goes back into her home, coming out again shortly after, pulling a long table.

The great doors — massive, five zebra-high copper plated things, covered in intricate bas-reliefs — creaked and then flew out of the frame, their hinges ripped from the walls, and crashed down a short distance inside the room, cracking the mosaics decorating the floor.

Zecora came through the open gate walking with slow, deliberate steps. Her armor was covered in ash and scorch marks, her cloak frazzled at the end, her mask chipped and flickering with glyphs in the penumbra. Beside her came shadows, behind her crimson guards. Zebras pressed against the walls of the large room, trembling and hiding behind the columns supporting the high ceiling. They shielded foals behind them, trying to calm the sobbing so as not to draw attention.

Zecora ignored them, her eyes focused on the empty throne at the end of the room. As she reached it, she stopped and looked at it, drinking in the details. It was a masterwork, engraved with red gold and embedded with a few carefully placed crystals reflecting the light to give the illusion it was glowing with warm luminescence. The figures created scenes with shadow-plays that moved and told a story each day thanks to the path of the sun and its rays coming in through the windows. Blue banners hung on the side of it and their color once gave the room a breezy and bright atmosphere.

Zecora raised one hoof, and brought it down with a thundering crack. A web of fractures climbed up the throne, until it broke apart in a heap of rubble. A loud gasp rose from one of the zebras.

She turned around, looked briefly at the cowering stallions and mares, and then, without a second glance, walked to the smashed door, leaving.

Zecora drops a few of the triangular dough bags in the hot oil, carefully avoiding the drops of sizzling liquid that shoot up from the cauldron. As the dumplings turn a beautiful brown color, she fishes them out with a skimmer and puts them in a wicker basket, the excess fat dripping to the floor. As she begins to fry the last batch, somepony knocks at the door.

Zecora stood before the Throne of Whispers, her pectoral almost gleaming with light, her crown giving off a fiery aura. Along the walls stood alternating guards and shadows. In the center of the room there were zebras in ragged capes of various colors, kneeling down and with their eyes on the floor. Only one still stood upright, glaring at the mare. It was a stallion in a blue cape full of holes and covered in dust and grime, with thin golden chains that hung broken from his clothes.

One of the guards took a step toward him, when Zecora interrupted with a gesture. She looked down at the defying zebra, her expression blank. After a few instants of silence, she descended the raised throne platform and walked to Galdaasa. He flinched briefly, but immediately recovered, straightening.

She stopped in front of the stallion, and then raised a hoof. Strange writings on her toe lightened up, and shadows flew from the walls to gather behind her. Galdaasa closed his eyes, but his head remained high. The shadows flew on her, gathered around her leg, the air became chilly. Then Zecora looked briefly around.

The other prisoners were still low. No zebra had dared to look up and they were all trembling. She glanced at her guards. Even as they were stoically looking over the room, she could sense the uneasiness. She looked again at Galdaasa, then at her hoof, and she knew it was a crucial point of her story. Now her narration, so carefully interweaved with destiny and spirit, had reached a turning point, one of the very few instances of free will remaining to her in this thread of events. Sighing, she put her hoof down, the shadows dispelling.

Zecora leaned forward, and whispered in the stallion’s ear. "I do not want to rule with fear, so for my daughter I will leave my reign, but if you ever break the peace, I will be back for you again."

Galdaasa opened his eyes surprised, and stumbled back a bit. He looked at the mare in front of him, stared at her, and then he bowed down.

Laughter rolls over the clearing, the light from the torches illuminates a table filled with food. Six ponies and a zebra sit around it, eating, chatting and drinking. Rainbow Dash and Applejack stare one at another, while eating a spoon of red paste each, sweat running down on their muzzles, hoofs trembling. Rarity observes the scene snorting while Fluttershy prepares cups of milk. Pinkie eats dumplings covered in hot sauce smiling somehow during the whole process and Twilight talks with Zecora.

Obboroo screamed at Zecora. "What does this mean? How can you leave? You won the war, you deserve reprieve!"

The two mares stood in a small room, arcadian frescoes on the walls, a few pieces of furniture here and there, a bed, a small table, a chest.

Zecora shook her head. "My beloved daughter, I am tainted with fear and hate, our land needs to heal, to rule it is your fate."

Obboroo squinted her eyes, her voice trembled. "Mother, the war was long, I missed you for all these years, I do not want the throne, it will end all in tears."

The older zebra lowered her head. "I have forged these shackles myself, I manipulated my own story, now I pay the due penance, as it can only end in obscurity or bloody glory."

The young mare stared at her mother with barely contained rage. "So I got a reign and lost a mother."

Zecora looked up shocked. "Obboroo, your rhyming, you must never fail to..."

The princess exploded. "I DON‘T CARE!" She shoved Zecora aside and ran out of the room.

The queen looked after her, then closed her eyes, lowered her head, fell down on her haunches, and shivered.

Zecora waves as the mares trot down the path. Back in the clearing she stomps down once and the torches blow out. She slowly walks back to her home. Inside, the warm light of the candles illuminates the mess of cups, knives, pots and spoons. The zebra looks briefly around, and, whistling, begins to clean.

The warm light of the dawning sun illuminated the colorful city walls and the small, desolated side gate. There were no farmers bringing in their produce, no guards watching over the paved road.

Zecora, wearing nothing more than a few simple jewels and five rings around her neck, finished loading the last chest on a small cart already loaded with scrolls, masks and supplies. She walked to the front of it and slipped into the harness, checking a few times if it sat right.

She looked one last time back. Six mares stood at the gate, their ancient visages telling of a long life and of the collected wisdom of the old traditions. The walls of the city were adorned with beautiful scenes of legends and fables, with the long history they had seen mixed with legends. Beyond them the white roofs, then, in the distance, the elegant towers in the center, the crystals and mirrors on the roofs painting each other with light. Over the walls themselves, an army of smoke figures, over a hundred generations of rulers, mystics, heroes and artists. The composed soul of the city was looking at her, and she would never be part of it.

Zecora sighed, looked at the road before her, at the long path that awaited her, and took the first step of her wandering, the clattering of the wheels the only sound in that morning. The six mares turned and entered through the gate, the smoke constructs disappeared one by one, until a single figure remained, a mother waving to her departing daughter, pride and sorrow playing on the fading features.

And then there was silence.

Zecora sits in front of an open book, a pile of loose sheets of paper covered in mouth-writing on a side, a small plate with still steaming food on the other. She begins to read a bit from a sheet, and then writes in the book, slowly and methodically. She continues for a while, the candles flickering, brief glimpses of moonlight coming through the windows now and then. She arrives at the end of the last page, closes the book and looks up. She takes one of the dumplings from the plate, uses a stick to engrave a few glyphs on it, breaks it in half and throws it in the air. At the apex of its flight, a shadow comes out of the nothingness and catches it. A vortex of darkness consumes the piece of food, before the shade coagulates in a vaguely winged figure that glides down to Zecora. The zebra stands up and whispers a few words to the thing. The shadow pulses, becomes again an amorphous mass of black, engulfs the book and the plate, and disappears. Zecora smiles, walks up to the candles, and extinguishes them with a hoof.

A zebra with a long scar on her flank stands still in the large sandstone chamber, the walls intricately engraved, a small artificial river flowing in geometrical patterns around her while servants free her of heavy regalia, jewels and, at last, the crown. When they finish, they leave the room walking backward, their heads low. Obboroo, now only clad with five golden rings around her neck, turns and steps through a small door on the opposite side. She enters in a smaller room, the walls painted with scenes of Arcadian life, a large bed in the center, a small table, a chest. She closes her eyes and sighs, her shoulders sloping, her posture less rigid. There is a clattering sound, she opens her eyes again, and on a table there is a book and a plate filled with steaming food.

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