When the Charioteer finally released his horses from their traces after a hard day of travel across the broad, windy skyways that ran along the near edge of heaven, the beasts were thirsty and in need of rest.
Thankfully, there was a tavern nearby.
“Heya, stop me if you’ve heard this one,” said Black, lurching crookedly up to the bar, crushing peanut shells beneath his hooves all the way. “A horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘We don’t serve horses here.’ Horse says, ‘That’s okay, I’ve got one of my own!'”
Black waited for a moment, smiling encouragingly at the Archon of the Forms behind the bar. The Archon paused the back-and-forth motion of his rag across the zinc top, deep in thought.
“I Have Heard That One Before,” said the Archon.
“You were supposed,” said Black, “to stop me.”
“I Could Not Know If I Had Heard It Without Hearing It In Its Entirety,” said the Archon. “Had The Punch-Line Been Altered, It Would Have Been A Fundamentally Different Jest.”
“That’s fair,” admitted Black.
“An Interesting Bit Of Humor,” the Archon droned on. “The Horse Presumes He Is In Possession Of Himself, But Is He Truly? Hunger Holds Sway Over Him, As Does Weariness, As Does Thirst. Can Any Of Us Truly Say He Owns Himself While Indebted To Such Cruel Masters?”
“Okay, never mind, you’re murdering it. Pint of who-knows-what.”
“I Give Up. Who Does Know?”
Black sighed. “Stout. Darker the better, heavier the better. Basically pumpernickel in a glass. Pay off one a’ those three landlords you were talking about.”
“It Is Coming Right Up,” said the Archon, painstakingly selecting a pint glass and setting it under the tap.
“Three landlords?” came a musical voice from behind Black. “You forget the Charioteer, who owns us both.” There was a delicate clip-clip of hooves as White approached, having finally assessed the establishment as barely worthy of her patronage. “Not that it’s surprising. You never pay him any mind.”
Black spread his leathery wings over the two stools to either side of him. “Ooh, sorry,” he said. “I’m saving these for a friend.”
White snorted. “You have a friend?”
“I do. His name is My Own Sanity and Well-Being. Seriously, White, place’s empty. Pick a table or something.”
“I enjoy the élan of a good zinc bar,” said White, coming down like a ton of bricks on the italics so you could really tell how French it was. She trotted over to the antique Wurlitzer bubble jukebox at the far end of the bar, lipped some coins out of her saddlebags, and set the old monster in motion. After a brief hiss of needle-on-vinyl, the speakers began emitting Pachelbel’s Canon. Black thumped his head gently and repeatedly against the surface of the bar.
“Club soda,” she announced, trotting back over, making it sound less like an order and more like a bizarre oath. She removed a speck of dust from the smooth leather of her chosen stool with one brush of her left primaries and perched her rump atop it.
“Wow, carbonation,” said Black, gazing blearily up at her. “Living large, White. Sure you’re up for it?”
“Carbonation is invigorating,” replied White, as the Archon deftly served up Black’s stout with one hand and pulled the soda gun with his other. “It is a tonic after a hard day of good, honest progress. Certainly, there is a slight risk of colic, but this is why we practice moderation.”
Black stuck his long, equine face straight into the pint and began sucking. White glanced in his direction, opened her mouth once, then closed it. After a moment, she continued. “Regardless, refreshment is important. The road of the heavens is a difficult one, after all, but I promise all will seem worthwhile when the three of us stand together and finally behold the Forms.” White sighed, her eyes distant. “Just imagine it, Black! Nothing but perfect, true natures, as far as the eye can see! The ideal forms of all that exists, the standards by which everything on earth can be judged!”
Black took another long slurp as the Archon served up White’s soda water. “Orange twist?” she politely requested, raising one hoof like a schoolgirl. Black snorted into his glass, making bubbles.
White glared at him. “You think the Forms are a joke, of course. Not surprising; you always have.”
“I think your orange twist is a joke. I want to see the Forms as much as anyone.”
“Well, you’ve never acted like it,” said White. “I’ve known you for an eternity now, and not once have you shown a single bit of care for anything of importance.” She glanced down at her club soda, then back up at the Archon. “Perhaps one of those little fruit skewers, as well?”
“Listen,” said Black, “Question my morals. Question my language. Question my frankly questionable bodily odors.”
“That odd cheese-like smell coming from your hooves.”
“Yes. Question that. Goodness knows I do. But do not question my commitment. I am up there on the ridge of the heavens, right alongside you, every single day. Pulling my friggin’ heart out.”
White laughed; half whinny, half the pealing of a string of silver bells. Black glared at her.
“Nothing, nothing,” said White. She inclined her muzzle toward the Archon again. “Straw, please. Maybe just a touch of grenadine. Can you be a dear?”
“You’re making me say this? You’re actually making me say this?”
“Sure,” said Black, throwing his forehooves wide. “Let’s just lay it all out, shall we?”
“He beats you!”
Black turned back to his drink. “Love taps,” he muttered.
“Lash after lash with the whip, Black. Not that I blame him, mind you. You barely pay it any heed.”
“Love taps. Like I said.”
“I’ve seen him raise blood, Black! You keep pulling us down, time and time again! It’s all either he or I can do to keep us headed upward! I mean, I trust the old boy’s judgment on this, but even I have to wince at how he treats you sometimes.”
Black took a long suck of stout. “Well, I am what I am,” he said. “I get distracted by stuff on the ground.”
“Mares,” sniffed White.
“Mares count as ‘stuff.’ As does clover.”
“Perhaps I haven’t been sufficiently corriged.”
White shook her head. “It just wouldn’t be that hard! Work with us for once, instead of against us! We’ve been at this job literally for ever, Black, and I don’t honestly think we’re even a single inch higher than we were at the start of things!”
Black stared at her.
This time, it was White’s turn. “What?”
“Higher. We’re supposed to go higher.”
“Yes! The stars! The great celestial vault! Have you gone silly in the brain? It’s been our goal! This entire time!”
“The goal is to behold the Forms, White.”
“Exactly! That’s where the Forms are, Black! Where else would they be? Honestly, I sometimes wonder if you even want this!”
“I’ve got my eyes on the prize. Same as you.”
“Well, I’m sorry!” shouted White, striking a certain tonal dissonance with the placid Canon still noodling away in the background. “I just don’t see it!”
“Fine,” said Black. “Go there without me.”
White fell into silence.
“We’re a team,” she said, after a moment. “We get there together or not at all. You know this.”
“I’m not talking about getting us all there. You’re antsy to get to the Forms? Just take a quick jaunt up there.”
White sat back on her stool as the Archon returned with the grenadine. “Just… go?”
“Sure. We’re all unhitched now. I’m still finishing my drink. Slip out the back while whip-boy’s distracted. Snap a picture or something.”
White blinked. “It would be nice to not have to drag a weight for once.”
“And to not have you there always fighting me,” she continued, slightly more pointedly.
“Makes sense to me.”
“Yes!” said White, pushing herself back from the bar. “I really, really hate saying this, Black, but you’ve had an excellent idea. I could use a little success to buoy my spirits, and maybe my pictures will inspire you to greater performance!”
“I’ll prepare a PowerPoint presentation!”
“Of course you will.”
“It will be the best slideshow. The. Best.”
“Looking forward to it.”
White stood up, her hooves falling to the peanut-shell-strewn floor with a crunchy little clop.
“Right!” she said. “Just head right out the rear door.”
“Mm hm,” said Black, returning to his stout, licking the dregs of it from the bottom of the glass.
White stood there for a moment more, and then in a twirl of feathers, she was gone, slipping out the back.
The Archon watched her depart. “Her Tab Remains Unpaid,” he noted.
“I got it,” said Black, fishing around for a credit card.
The high-altitude wind was terribly bracing, ruffling White’s mane as she stepped out the door. Up past the bar’s flickering neon sign, she could see stars beginning to appear in the rapidly-purpling evening sky. It was a heartbreakingly clear evening.
“Perfect,” said White, idly drawing constellation-lines between the glimmering stars in her mind. For a moment, it felt like she could practically reach up and brush them with a wingtip. She spared a glance at the Charioteer, patiently tending to his beloved carriage. The man seemed never to eat, sleep, or rest, and White felt a rush of quiet love for him, followed by a quick pang at her little indiscretion.
“Perhaps I should tell him?” she said. Then she shook her head. Better not to bother him. She’d be back before he even noticed, she decided. Trotting daintily back behind the tavern, she began unfurling and flexing her long, white wings, flaring her nostrils and taking deep gulps of the night air into her tremendous lungs. With the keen eye of an artist, she selected a path toward the edge of the mountain that would give her enough of a runup to get airborne.
White set her jaw and broke into a gallop.
The sensation was startling, positively electric. It felt like freedom. It felt like… like whatever horrible perverted thing that Black always wanted mares for. Without the weight of the chariot behind her, without Black’s constant hoof-dragging, she felt as light as a feather on the wind. The powerful muscles of her torso flexed, raising tiny dust devils in the dry soil of the mountaintop, and she felt gravity loosening its grip on her body. The runup she had so carefully chosen turned out to be all but unneeded as she sprang into the air like so much dandelion fluff.
White pirouetted joyfully, locating the last warm updrafts of the day and riding them skyward. She was greedy, positively gluttonous for altitude. Meter after meter fell behind and below her. The mountaintop bar faded to a glimmering point of neon, and then was lost to the unfolding dark of the ground below. Tremulous excitement fluttered in her breast as she climbed. The Forms, finally! After all this time! She would be the first of the three to see them!
But, she then vowed, she would not be smug about it. She would make good on her promise to tell Black all about the wonders held in the sky. It’d put a spring in the stallion’s step. Maybe improve his attitude a little. Oh, and she’d tell the Charioteer, too! Certainly he’d appreciate it. He’d rub her nose and maybe offer her a bit of fruit and tell her how good a girl she was…
So lost was she in reveries that she did not notice the ice on her feathers.
The cold had snuck up on her. She’d not been aware of the hairs of her coat unconsciously fluffing out, nor the tickle of frost building on her whiskers. She’d been pulling against the ice for five full minutes before she began to notice the drag on her wings, how heavy and stiff they were at this tremendous altitude. It was tolerable at first. No worse than pulling against stodgy old Black all the time, she hastily reasoned. Surely, she’d reach the stars and behold the Forms before it became a problem. Mind firmly made up, she kept climbing, long after the thermals had fizzled out, long after the air changed from rarified and bracing to icy and thin, long after the evening sky turned from a mellow violet to a hard, unforgiving black.
Something unnerving was happening.
The stars weren’t getting any closer.
This was higher than White had ever flown in her long life. Whenever she paused to look up, the stars were always there, just out of reach. She’d always wanted to study them more closely, marvel at their tiny jeweled facets, ooh and aah over the way they sparkled in the light. Not forever, of course, but as a pleasant distraction en route to the Forms which she had always presumed must be just beyond.
But no matter how she strained, how mightily her wings beat, the stars were just as distant as ever. A rare snarl crossed White’s muzzle and she redoubled her efforts, artlessly striking at what was left of the air as though she held a deep-seated grudge. She flew until her chest heaved, until her coat lathered (then froze into an uncomfortable shroud of ice), until the skin around her flared, blood-red nostrils began to crack.
She whimpered. The nations of the earth stretched out beneath her. She could clearly see its curvature, the impossibly-thin patina of atmosphere encircling it. She had come so far! Surely the stars must be close…
But there they were, hanging there, as though she’d never even started.
White tried to scream, to sob, but there was no air left for either. The void above her was hard, black, and complete.
She hung there for a moment more, silhouetted against the stars. Then she closed her eyes, folded her wings, and dove like a meteor back to earth. Back to the bar.
By the time she arrived, the M
aster had dragged Black outside (kicking and screaming, doubtless—Black never willingly left a house of pleasure) and was hitching him roughly to the chariot. White thought for a moment of her soda water, sitting completely untouched inside. She had a brief, mad idea of rushing back in and getting at least a sip, but… no. The Master was waiting. White did a lightning groom of her disheveled feathers and coat, hoping against hope that Black wouldn’t notice the tear-tracks around her eyes, and started out toward the chariot.
Then she pivoted sharply about and cantered back inside. The Archon of the Forms was placidly wiping the zinc surface of the bar, just as he had done for all eternity.
“My tab,” she said, rummaging around in her saddlebags with her teeth. “I need to pay you for—”
“It Is Reconciled,” said the Archon, not looking up. “Your Bat-Winged Friend Has Paid All.”
“Oh,” said White. She glanced at the glass of soda water on the bar. Most of the fizz had gone out of it, and the fruit skewer had fallen crookedly into the glass and was floating limply in the murky pink liquid.
White stared at it for a moment.
Then she seized the skewer, removed the fruit with her dexterous lips, devoured it all, and spat the empty skewer onto the bar. She plunged her muzzle into the soda water and sucked the glass dry, the feeble remaining bubbles tickling her nose and eyes. It tasted utterly delicious. It was the perfect, ideal soda, against which all other sodas could be judged.
Then she wheeled about and galloped outside, where she found the Charioteer finishing up with Black.
“So, what,” said Black, gasping slightly as the Master cinched his harness. “Did you think we were overnighting here or something? You know whip-boy here has ants in his pants.”
“Just took a little longer than expected. But so worth it! Oh, Black, the Forms were gorgeous. You’ll love them. Just keep at it and follow my lead; we’ll all get there someday.”
“Mm hm,” said Black, as the Charioteer strapped blinkers to his face. “How about those pictures?”
“Darnedest thing,” said White, as the Master moved on to her tack, consisting of the barest suggestion of a surcingle affixed to itself with little more than Velcro. “I forgot to look for a power outlet when we touched down. My phone was just stone dead up there.”
“Pity,” said Black.
“An overwhelming pity,” agreed White. “Also, I won’t get any credit on my pedometer app for the entire next leg, which stinks.” She paused as the Master scratched at an itchy place behind her left ear. Such a kind man, she thought, as he crossed to the car and climbed aboard, readying the whip. The whip was for Black, of course. She never needed the whip. She was a good girl.
“Ready for this?” said Black.
“Forever,” replied White, her head high.
The whip cracked. The horses pulled. The chariot moved. And for a moment, White was keenly aware of the heavy, recalcitrant, positively obstinate mass of Black at her side, always fighting her, tooth and hoof, for every inch of sky.
He felt warm.