Alicornundrum - FiMFetch.net (2024)

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Alicornundrum
  • 1. Chapter 1
  • 2. Chapter 2
  • 3. Chapter 3
  • 4. Chapter 4
  • 5. Chapter 5
  • 6. Chapter 6
  • 7. Chapter 7
  • 8. Chapter 8
  • 9. Chapter 9
  • 10. Chapter 10
  • 11. Chapter 11
  • 12. Chapter 12
  • 13. Chapter 13
  • 14. Chapter 14
  • 15. Chapter 15
  • 16. Chapter 16
  • 17. Chapter 17
  • 18. Chapter 18
  • 19. Chapter 19
  • 20. Chapter 20
  • 21. Chapter 21
  • 22. Chapter 22
  • 23. Chapter 23
  • 24. Chapter 24
  • 25. Chapter 25
  • 26. Chapter 26
  • 27. Chapter 27
  • Prelude

    It really was a most unusual day in Ponyville.

    Nyx had the feeling something was off from the first minute she woke up. Oh, breakfast was normal enough; in fact her mother seemed in a very cheerful mood, singing to herself as she bustled around getting ready for the day. "Morning sleepyhead!" she said as Nyx came into the kitchen. "Waffles for breakfast today; fill 'er up, kiddo!" She pushed a plate of syrupy goodness in front of Nyx. Twilight turned back to what she was doing-- which was apparently trotting back and forth between tending the stove, writing out her daily checklist, and eyeballing something bubbling in a beaker.

    Nyx grinned and took a big bite of her waffles. It made Nyx happy to see Twilight happy.

    Though as for that, lately happy little moments like this made Nyx have a funny little twinge of sadness. A thought that kept poking her in the back of her mind no matter how often she tried to forget it. Seeing Twilight trotting back and forth, humming and singing, she felt it again, that stupid thought intruding. Once again, Nyx scornfully pushed it away. It was a nice day, she shouldn't be spending it moping about things like that.

    Still... there was something else nagging at her. She couldn't put her hoof on it, for some reason.

    Once her plate was clean Nyx grabbed her saddlebags and bolted out the door. She stopped to give her mother a goodbye hug and then was off for school. She was halfway to the schoolhouse when the nagging feeling, that feeling that something was, well, off, came back. It probably had something to do with the snow that had started falling....

    Snow?

    Nyx looked around in surprise. Indeed, there was snow falling, in a single block area. One block over it was sunny. The next block in the distance, it was raining. She looked up at the sky, only to find that the clouds were arranged in a checkerboard pattern clear to the horizon. Was Rainbow Dash pulling some sort of prank? Nyx didn't think so. At least she hoped she wasn't; ponies all around looked pretty mad.

    The clouds shuffled around and Nyx found herself caught underneath a highly localized downpour. She squealed and ran for it. No sense in staying outside any longer than she needed to.

    When she got to school, things were pretty churned up there, too. Colts and fillies were abuzz with stories of bizarre goings on all over town. Worse, none of the stories made any sense. Fluttershy was apparently running around Sugarcube Corner trying to play jokes, while there seemed to be some sort of animal riot going on at Rainbow Dash's.... cottage? But didn't Dash live in the cloud manor floating over town? And Applejack was making an absolute mess over at Carousel Boutique, hanging dresses that looked like burlap bags in the windows. And Applebloom was fit to be tied, because there was no way that Pinkie Pie would get the harvest in...

    Nyx rubbed her aching head. Did she fall down a magic rabbit hole in the middle of the night?

    Miss Cheerilee had a special event planned for that day. Several of the ponies from the old folk's rest home were visiting today, and telling the colts and fillies stories about when they were young and Ponyville was new. It was fascinating, hearing them talk about things from years ago in their soft, quavery voices.

    But at the same time, it... hurt.

    Nyx didn't know what was wrong with her. No, that wasn't honest. She knew what was wrong with her. That nagging thought that she hated so much. Most days she'd forget it entirely. Today though it seemed like everything was reminding her of it, dragging it to the front of her mind.

    At lunch she managed to almost put it out of her mind completely. She had a daffodil sandwich and a thermos of celery soup, her favorite meal. All her friends-- the Cutie Mark Crusaders, Sweetiebelle, Scootaloo, Applebloom, Twist-- were all at the picnic table with her, eating their lunches and telling jokes and stories. Everything was all right.

    Well. Mostly. The weather was still horribly wonky. At least the square of sky above the school was clear. Still, she felt better, she thought.

    The others were chattering about the old ponies who'd talked that morning. "Mr. Wattle's stories were neat," Sweetiebelle said. "I never knew that there used to be a pin and button store where Sugarcube Corner is."

    "I was more interested in his stories about patrolling the Gryphon border back when he was in the Guard," Scootaloo said. "Wow. Betcha he couldn't even pick up a helmet and sword today..."

    "Yeah, it's kinda weird thinking of him bein' as young and big and strong as Big Macintosh, way back when," Applebloom mused. "Now he's so old and wrinkly and tired..."

    "Yeah, well we're all gonna be like that someday, Mom keeps telling me," Scootaloo said.

    "Boy, caintcha see us like that?" Applebloom chuckled. "All old and wrinkly like Granny Smith, takin' naps all the time..."

    "Yeah," laughed Sweetiebelle. She hunched over, pantomiming like an old mare. "Shoot, you whippersnappers, where's my rocker, I wanna take a nap!"

    "Eh, Applejack'll get that way first," Applebloom said. "She's already crabby. She'll be meaner'n an old goat when she and her friends get old..."

    "Ugh, Rainbow Dash an old mare? Never," Scootaloo said.

    "Don't tell Rarity. She'll freak," Sweetiebelle giggled. "Hey Nyx, what do you think-- Nyx? Nyx, what's wrong?"

    Nyx was perfectly silent. She was still stoically eating her daffodil sandwich, chewing deliberately. But it tasted like wood. Fat tears were beading up in her eyes and spilling down her cheeks, soaking the bread. She choked down her mouthful and put the sandwich down, unfinished. "Nothing," she said. "It's nothing..." She got up and trotted away, fast, before her friends could follow.

    She found Cheerilee over by the schoolhouse door, watching over the playground. "Miss Cheerilee? I don't feel good. Can I go home?"

    Cheerilee looked at her, concerned. "Are you sure, Nyx?" Nyx nodded. Cheerilee looked at her tear-streaked face and relented. "All right. You go straight home. You think you can make it on your own?" Nyx nodded again. "Good, you go straight home. I'll have one of the girls bring you any homework we have. Okay?"

    That was fine with Nyx. Nyx didn't care. She turned around and started on the long walk home.

    When she got home, nopony was there. She went straight up to her room, crawled into bed, and cried her heart out. Here, in her room, she finally let herself think that awful thought that she couldn't keep away, no matter how hard she tried:

    They were all going to die.

    They all were. All of her friends and loved ones... her grandparents, her parents, her 'aunties,' her friends... they would grow old, and grow sick, and finally die. Even Spike. Dragons lived thousands of years, but someday even Spike would grow old and pass away.

    Nyx wouldn't. She was an alicorn; alicorns were immortal. That meant she would live forever... and she'd watch all of her friends die.

    She'd watch Twilight die, someday.

    That thought nearly stopped her heart. She couldn't bear it. It was too much to bear.

    She'd known this for a long time. There were nights where she'd wished on just about every star in the sky that there was some way to change that; but even she knew wishes were just that-- wishes. In time she'd quit wishing. She'd simply given up hope.

    Something light and downy and warm alighted on the tear soaked pillow, next to her head. Peewee nuzzled her wet cheek with his beak, cooing. Nyx put her forelegs around the phoenix chick, cradling him in a delicate almost-hug. "At least you'll be here," she said sadly. Peewee chirped and brushed her cheek with a wingtip. At least it was something. Exhausted from her crying, she drifted off to sleep.

    She was awoken, it felt like almost immediately, by an enormous flash of light. She bolted up in bed even as the light blazing through her doorway flickered out, rubbing her sticky eyes. She looked out the window: to her surprise the sun had already set. She could hear voices downstairs, shouting in panic... What were Mom's friends doing here?

    And why were they shouting her name?

    A sudden terrible premonition seized Nyx. She jumped out of bed and galloped down the stairs. Twilight's friends were all there, wearing their elements, and staring in horror at a black scorch mark, shaped like a six pointed star, on the floor.

    They turned when they heard her on the stairs. Their expressions when they saw it was her made Nyx's heart freeze. Fluttershy was the first to speak:

    "Oh, Nyx--!"

    That was all it took for Nyx to piece everything together. She nearly fell down the last of the stairs and scrambled for the burn mark on the floor. "TWILIGHT!! NOOO!!" She pawed at the black stain with her hooves, as if she would rub the mark away and find her mother hidden behind it.

    There was a noise and a ruckus and suddenly the others were pressed close around her. The room reeled in a circle...

    "Nyx? Nyx! Wake up, child."

    Luna's voice, surprisingly gentle in her ear, shocked her to wakefulness. She jolted awake, finding herself between Luna's forehooves. "MOMMY!" she cried out.

    "Easy, easy, little one. Your mother is fine," the Princess of the Night said, lifting her up.

    Nyx got to her hooves, her heart pounding. "What happened??" she said, wheeling to face Luna.

    The joy sparkling in Princess Luna's eyes made Nyx's breath catch in bewilderment. "Something wonderful," Luna said with a smile. "Quick, go outside or you'll miss it!" She gave Nyx an eager nudge.

    Nyx needed no further encouragement. She galloped out the open front door.

    She was out in the street with the Spike and Peewee and the Bearers just in time to see a lavender globe of light descend from the starry sky. It settled to the ground in the middle of the astonished ponies, lighting gently as a feather. It faded, then winked out, revealing a kneeling pony...

    "Mom!" Nyx started forward, then froze, anguished and uncertain. She watched as Twilight rose to her feet and lifted her head... and spread her beautiful wings.

    It couldn't be...

    Twilight opened her eyes and took a breath. "Homina," she said, staggering a little.

    Her friends crowded around her, crowing with delight. But they had to make way an instant later for a tiny fourlegged missile. Nyx hit her mother at a dead run, bowling her clean over.

    "Ack!" Twilight hit the ground with a loud thump, wings splayed everywhere.

    "YesyesyesyesyesyesYES!!" Nyx squealed, wrapping her forelimbs around Twilight's neck in a strangling hug, tears-- this time of pure joy-- rolling down her face. "My wish came true! YesyesyesyesYES!!"

    Princess Celestia alighted in the street just as her sister came strolling out of the library. She watched with amusem*nt as the overjoyed little filly hugged her newly ascended mother. "Should we let them know we're here?" she said.

    Luna chuckled, eyes sparkling. "Give them a minute..."

    "YesyesyesyesYES!"

    Yes, it really was a most unusual day in Ponyville. But then, it's the best place in Equestria to have one.

    Chapter 2

    "What do you mean, 'you're a Princess now?' "

    "I mean, 'You're a princess now,' Twilight," Celestia said, repeating herself. "The title, the tiara, the royal authority, the whole regal magilla. You... are now... a Princess.... of the land... of Equestria." She tapped her former student on the nose with each pause for emphasis.

    She had to repeat herself a bit loudly. An overexcited Nyx was all but bouncing off the walls of the library, shouting "yesyesyesyesyes" over and over again as she ricocheted around.

    "But on what--- oh confound it. Spike, take Nyx someplace, will you?--Take her to Sugarcube Corner to celebrate. We need to talk here!" Twilight shoved some bits in Spike's claws and pushed him towards the exuberant filly's latest approximate location.

    Spike looked confused. "But it's the middle of the night!"

    Twilight started to facehoof, but Pinkie Pie jumped in. "No problemaroonie! I'll just open up the kitchen and have Nyxie help me bake your "congratulations on becoming an alicorn and a princess all on the same night!" Cake!" She pondered. "Boy, I'd better make it a jumbo sheet cake. That's a lot of letters to write in icing...."

    "Fine great good perfect," Twilight said, pushing Nyx, Pinkie and Spike out the door. "Have fun!" She shut the door behind them not with a slam, but darned close to it. "Now--" She turned to face the Princesses. (The other Princesses? Was that correct now?) and realized that the rest of her friends were still seated around the library, staring at her. Right. The room had seemed sort of crowded... Twilight facehoofed.

    "Don't bother tryin' ta shoo us along too, Twi," Applejack said with a wink. "We're here for the duration."

    "Yeah, and anyway you'll just have to tell us everything over again later," Rainbow Dash pointed out from her perch on a freestanding bookshelf. Twilight sighed; they were right. But mission accomplished, at least; having both a giddy filly and a free-ranging Pinkie Pie in the roomwould have made sane conversation impossible. She sighed and sat back down on her cushion facing Celestia and Luna.

    "Okay, Like I was saying... you said I'm a Princess, Princess. Um."

    "Just call me Celestia from now on, Twilight," Celestia said with a grin. "Otherwise that's going to get very tiresome."

    "RRright. Anyway....I'm a Princess now?"

    "Yes," Celestia and Luna nodded.

    The Sisters were beings several thousands of years old, and had seen and heard just about everything. So it says something that Twilight's next question surprised them.

    "On what grounds?"

    Celestia and Luna blinked at her, then blinked at each other. Then blinked at her again. "Thou art an alicorn now, Twilight," Luna said matter-of-factly. "Thou hast ascended. Tis the natural order of things."

    Twilight gaped at them. "Wait. What? Just because I grew these," she flapped her new wings for emphasis, "I'm suddenly qualified to rule a country? That's it?"

    "Not just anypony is suited for ascendance, Twilight," Luna said, chiding. "They must needs take a throne--"

    "Why did you make me of all ponies an alicorn, if that's the case?" Twilight said, getting to her feet in agitation.

    Celestia chuckled. "I think you have misunderstood what has happened here today, Twilight," she said. "I didn't make you an alicorn."

    "What you do mean? I finished Starswirl's spell, got transported to that starry-cloud-space dimension thingy where you were, you told me how proud you were of me and then you transformed me for--- what. No?" She paused as Celestia shook her head. "You didn't transform me?" Twilight asked hesitantly. Celestia shook her head. "It... was something else?" Twilight concluded. Celestia nodded.

    "I thought it was the Elements that did it," Fluttershy said, pointing to the rather obvious scorch mark still visible on the floor.

    "You know, I kinda knew Twilight was just gonna become an alicorn someday anyway," Dash said. At the skeptical looks she received she protested, "Hey, I did! I mean come on, she was uber mondo magical even before she was an alicorn. And her cutie mark story-- zowie! I figured she was like, a, I dunno, alicorn caterpillar or something," she finished with a shrug.

    "Actually, it's a little bit of all three things," Celestia confessed. "You see, some very rare ponies are born with the... call it the potential to become an alicorn. If all goes well, when they reach a certain point in their development they 'ascend' to that dimension that you experienced, Twilight, where they complete their metamorphosis. It happened to Cadence quite shortly after her birth--- gave her mother quite the fright, let me tell you."

    "Twould have been a great deal more exciting for her mother if it happened before her birth," Luna said wryly.

    "Indeed it would have," Celestia said, half-chuckling. "Poor Mom. She never did let us forget, did she?

    "Anyhow, there are certain things that can help a developing pre-alicorn along. And which are necessary for other reasons. Things like early training in magic.Or exposure to certain powerful magic artifacts..."

    "Like the Elements," Rarity said, eyes shining.

    Celestia nodded. "In fact, we believe that one of the functions of the Elements was to act as tools for the ascendence of alicorns," she said. "After all, the most common effect of their power, it could be said, is to restore the true nature of a thing. To bring it back into harmony with itself, as it were."

    "Like when they turned Nightmare Moon back into Princess Luna," Twilight said in a rush of insight. "Or restored Ponyville after Discord messed it all up."

    "Exactly," Celestia said with a smile. "Starswirl the Bearded's last spell was meant to trigger that transformative attribute under, ah, more controlled and nurturing circ*mstances." She looked at the other bearers briefly, a tiny frown on her face. "Although we were expecting..." she tapped her chin with a hoof.

    "What, Princess?"

    "...Oh, nothing," Celestia said. "Nothing to be concerned about. Some other things we were expecting, but apparently the time is not ripe yet." She looked back at Twilight and smiled. "All in due time.

    "Where was I? Oh yes. The reason you saw me in that aetherial plane, Twilight, is that we-- and now you-- are connected to it. We can move to it when we wish; we can also sense when something ascends to that dimension. I felt the magical eruption when you arrived there--- you made quite a splash, by the way--" Twilight blushed-- "So I went there immediately so I could, well, watch over the final phase of your transformation. I feared you might panic and injure yourself.

    "Also, to give you that one last push to finish the transformation." She winked. "It's rather similar to birthing a foal in that way. It can happen on its own but it's still better to have a midwife there."

    "Well that still doesn't answer the question of why I have to be a princess," Twilight said. She was getting a tad irritated.

    "We thought we already said this," Luna said, a smidge exasperated. " Thou art an alicorn, and alicorns are rulers!"

    "That doesn't mean a thing--" Twilight said heatedly.

    Celestia waved a hoof between the two glaring alicorns. "Please, calm down, Twilight," she said in a soothing tone, trying to keep the peace. "My sister isn't explaining it well."

    Twilight pouted a bit, but she lay back down. "I'm listening," she said.

    "Twilight, Alicorns are immensely powerful. All else being equal, an order of magnitude more powerful than the next most powerful unicorn. Likewise swifter on the wing than any pegasus and stronger than any earth pony. And do you remember that old saying by Clover the Clever about power?"

    "Power gathers power unto itself," Twilight recited. "What are you saying?"

    "I'm saying that, whether an alicorn wants to be a powerful ruler or leader or not, they end up becoming one." Celestia said wearily."Ponies will defer to us. They will ask for our help in matters great and small. They will revere us and look up to us as examples, regard us as paragons whether we are or not. Place us in positions of power and authority. Do things in our name, because they think it is what we want. Whether out of love or out of respect or out of fear, ponies will follow us, simply because we are so powerful. Even if we never had you coroneted, ponies would place a crown on your head.

    Worse, some ponies would try to use you as a means to power-- to start a war, or a secession, or even a coup. Or even start a cult..." Celestia and Luna both shivered as ancient memories flitted across their minds' eyes. "Far better to make you a princess the moment you ascend, control the proceedings, than to leave all those loose ends lashing about."

    "You swore to Nyx and I that we wouldn't be sucked into this," Twilight Sparkle said, her voice thick with feelings of betrayal. "That you would keep us out of the politics and intrigue-- let us set our own course and our own lives--"

    Celestia's kind, patient, regretful tone never changed. "And I'm saying to you now, that your ascension has changed all that," she said. "It was difficult enough keeping the machinations of the court from dragging you in before, when you were just my faithful student. It became monstrously difficult when Nyx came along. Now-- it's just simply impossible."

    "Well what if she hid?" Rarity pointed out. "Fled to some far off island someplace or--- oh not that we'd want you to leave, Darling, we'd miss you and Nyx terribly--" she said to Twilight. "But if it came to it, if she just went off to live in seclusion, away from all... what? What is so funny?" For at the moment she'd said the words 'live in seclusion,' Celestia and Luna had shot each other a look and burst into hysterical laughter.

    "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Celestia said, wiping her eyes with her fetlock. "But when you said--" she giggled wildly, finally smothering it.

    "I know it's a tad melodramatic..." Rarity said, miffed.

    "It's not that, dear," Celestia said. "How do you think Canterlot got started in the first place?" At Rarity's bemused blink, Celestia explained. "After my sister was banished to the moon, I was in a pretty bad place. I left. Just flew off one day, found the highest mountain in the land, built a little cabin way up on top, and settled down to raise the sun and moon from there in peace and quiet.

    "Within a week the Pegasi had built a cloud palace for me around the peak. Within a fortnight the first earth pony and unicorn stonemasons had laid the foundation..." she sighed and rolled her eyes. "I just gave up at that point."

    "Twas nothing compared to when we first took the crowns," Luna said. " Or mayhap we should say had them forced upon us."

    "Really? They forced you to become Princesses?" Twilight said, incredulous.

    "Strewth," Luna said. "We never intended to claim the crown. But once we defeated Discord, the three tribes were at the door of our cottage shouting hail to their new Queens..."

    "Oh my. What did you do?" Fluttershy asked.

    "Ran like a couple of bucking chickens," Celestia said drolly. "--For two or three hundred years. Every time we found some new quiet little place to stay, within a decade ponies would be making treks to our front door, building shrines to us, swearing lifelong fealty..."

    "The final straw wast the Everfree," Luna said. "We finally fled to the heart of the deepest, darkest, scariest, most dangerous monster-filled forest in all the land. We went to the cave of the Tree of Harmony and made refuge there. We sealed the cave, and cast a spell of deepest sleep upon ourselves, and there in that chamber did lie down side by side, to sleep for centuries, till a time when we judged ponykind would have surely forgotten us."

    "And?" Twilight pressed. She and the girls were leaning forward, hanging on every word.

    "And we woke up and they'd found us and the Tree, and built a bedamned castle right overtop us while we slept," Luna said sourly.

    "You should have heard Luna swear when we woke up and saw the palace," Celestia said. "I think she invented half the profanities ponies use today, right then and there."Luna blushed, but didn't deny it.

    "So you're saying... that there's no way out of this, is there?" Twilight said sadly. Her ears and wings drooped; she was the picture of despondency.

    Celestia's smile became sympathetic. "I'm afraid not, Twilight," she said. "Ponies are going to want you to be a princess, one way or another."

    "So what now?" Twilight said.

    "Now? The coronation, in Canterlot," Luna said. "Then some few months of work as we set you in your place as the newest Princess of Equestria. Establish your royal authority and position, some public appearances and speaking engagements, carving your niche with the noble families and the peerage, determining your royal duties, establishing your entourage, arranging some courtly training... I'm sure Pomp and Circ*mstance (1) would help with that..."

    "You'll be moving back into the palace, of course," Celestia said. "For the immediate future. Until we can make more proper arrangements..."

    Celestia and Luna noted how Twilight's eyes grew more glazed with each addition to the list, and they shared a small, enigmatic smile with one another. Luna flashed a thought to her sister through the mental link they shared. I do feel bad for her, but---Do you think it will work?

    Celestia's small smile widened just slightly. Oh yes. She took careful note of the tiny twitch in her former pupil's eye. Spectacularly.

    1)Luna's redoubtable majordomos. One was a unicorn, one was a pegasus. And otherwise indistinguishable from one another-- even their cutie marks were identical. It was very annoying.

    Chapter 3

    It was the evening after the coronation. There had been parades and parties, celebrations and festivities in the street. Even now the citizens of Canterlot were out, partying down. It was a shindig and a half.

    Twilight slipped in through the door, mindful of her royal gown, and looked about smiling. The old library tower; her home away from home from when she had been a student. It was almost exactly as she and Spike had left it on the Summer Sun Celebration all those years ago.

    Nyx was already in. She had invited all of the Cutie Mark Crusaders(1) for a huge sleepover. She could see them all tumbled together on the upper balcony, overlooking the city through the enormous pane window. They were all sitting up watching the fireworks. Every now and then she heard a collective "Ooo" or "Aaah" as a particularly flashy pyrotechnic toy went off.

    Twilight was about to go upstairs to see how they were all doing when she noticed Nyx creeping down the stairs in the dark to her. The alicorn filly came up to her mother and gave her a nuzzle. "How are you doing, sweetie?" Twilight whispered.

    Nyx whispered back. "Okay, I guess..." She looked down, then back up at her mother. "Mom? I'm really really happy you're an alicorn now, but.. at the same time I'm a little scared."

    "About what?"

    "About..." Nyx huddled closer. Fireworks popped and crackled outside. "About you being a princess now. Does that make me a princess too? What if they make us stay here? What if they don't let us go back to Ponyville ever again?" Her voice got a little stressed as she slowly wound herself up. "What if they make you rule a country like Aunt Cadence and Uncle Shiney? What if we have to move far far away? What if they still don't like me because of Nightmare Moon and they decide they want me to go away?" Her eyes went wide. "What if the nobles are like in that book I read where they want the Prince's son to go away and they trick you into sending me off to some horrible boarding school---"

    "Nyx..."

    "And it's full of horrible strict schoolmarms who secretly hate foals and big bullying upperclassponies who torment all the other colts and fillies and secretly run the school with an iron hoof--"

    "Nyx..."

    "And I never get to see you because we're only supposed to go home on the holidays and your vizier issecretly plotting our downfall because he's evil and nopony ever notices even though he has a sleazy mustache and everything and he arranges things so I end up stuck at the school serving out punishments scrubbing the floors---"

    "Nyx..."

    "And I have to plot an escape with the plucky scullery maid because the school is out on some lonely rocky island in the frozen north surrounded by icy seas, because the evil vizier is in league with Queen Chrysalis or King Sombra or a bunch of treasonous nobles or some evil pony cult who's plotting to kidnap you or kidnap me and then kidnap you and then banish us both to the moon and---"

    "Nyx!"

    Nyx finally stuttered to a halt. Twilight nearly laughed, but she bit it back at the last moment when she saw Nyx's beseeching eyes. Remember Smarty Pants, Twilight told herself. Remember how you felt when nopony took your worries seriously."None of that's going to happen. I promise." Good grief, was I this bad of a worrywart when I was her age?

    Nyx looked distressed and exasperated at the same time. "But we've already been kidnapped by evil cults! Three times! Each!" She waved her forehooves around for emphasis. "Stuff like that happens all the time to us!"

    Twilight did chuckle then, and pulled her daughter in for a hug. "Sad but true," she admitted. "Let's face it, we're not exactly destined to live boring lives." She pushed Nyx away and looked down at her."I won't lie, Nyx. A lot of things are going to change now, and I'm not sure what," Twilight said. "But I promise you we'll get through them, all of them, together."

    "And I promise-- no evil boarding schools or viziers with sleazy mustaches." Twilight chuckled again, Nyx giggling weakly along with her. "Let's go join your friends before they eat all the s'mores." Nyx grinned and trotted off ahead.

    Twilight watched her daughter hop up the stairs. As emotional as Nyx could be, she bounced back so quickly even when their lives had been turned completely upside down. Twilight could only hope she could be half as resilient. She swallowed her apprehension back down and followed her daughter upstairs.

    The next morning came early. The various parents and siblings of the Cutie Mark Crusaders came by, picked up their still slumbering foals, and with many a laugh at their sleepy antics, carted them off to take them home.

    Once the last of them was gone, though, the morning sped up considerably. Just as she was contemplating waking Spike and Nyx up for breakfast, the baby dragon woke himself up with a sonorous belch. "Whuf, that was a rough one," he muttered, sitting up in his basket bed. "Hey Twi, scroll for ya." He tossed it off the balcony to her.

    Twilight snagged it out of the air with her magic. "Ah, must be from Celestia," she said. "I wonder what it is." She broke seal and skimmed it.

    It was from Celestia, of course. And the contents triggered Twilight into her most readily automatic response to the unexpected-- panic.

    "Dear Twilight,

    I am terribly sorry, but last night I forgot to mention there are a few things scheduled for today...

    In a few short minutes Twilight was rushing back and forth with her eyes affixed to the scroll, Spike, Owlowiscious, Peewee and Nyx swept up in her wake.

    "What's all the crazy rush?" Nyx said, trying to keep up but instead finding herself spinning in a circle in the middle of the room as her mother rushed-- and occasionally teleported-- back and forth.

    "I'm sorry, Nyx, but I'm very very very late!" Twilight said, porting into the bathroom and trying (unsuccessfully) to shower, brush her mane, tail and teeth, all at the same time-- with predictable results. "It's my first day as a Princess in Canterlot and I absolutely have to make a good impression. Princess Celestia wants me to sit in with her in Day Court, and then I have a meeting with the Ministry, and then I'm supposed to consult with somepony about selecting my personal staff, and making arrangements with the Royal Guard about my security detail,and then apparently a meet-and-greet luncheon with several important diplomats and I haven't even got a checklist for today made yet and AAAAAAH!"

    Everyone else nearly fell over themselves. "What? What? What?" Spike yelped.

    Twilight teleported right in front of Nyx. "You're LATE FOR SCHOOL!" Magic shot in every direction from Twilight's horn, snagging Nyx's saddlebags and stuffing them full of random stationary and a couple of books from the shelves,(2) Rustling up a sack lunch(3) and trying to comb Nyx's mane and wash her face.(4) The efforts were repeated with Spike, with similar results.(5)

    "akpth," Spike said. "Twilight, we--"

    "Spike I know you still think you don't need to go to school but we've already had this discussion a dozen times and I really don't have time to argue with you," Twilight said. "Oh horseapples it's too late to get a pegasus carriage you'll be late to class, Owlowiscious would you take Peewee-- NO WAIT that won't work, aren't Phoenixes territorial? Philomena won't like another Phoenix in the castle, you'll have to take him with you today, bring him in for show and tell, that's it!" The baby Phoenix was snatched out of the air and plunked down unceremoniously on Spike's head. "Okay, everypony, stand in close together---"

    "Mom, wait--" But Twilight was already lighting up her horn. With a brilliant purple flash, they all disappeared...

    Then reappeared on the front steps of the Ponyville schoolhouse. Spike and Nyx gawped. "Whoa, you teleported us all the way from Canterlot?? You've never--" Spike started to say, but was interrupted by Twilight shoving their lunches into his arms.

    "Okay, I've gotta go I'll send a carriage to pick you up after school I love you bye!" And Twilight vanished in a flash of purple light.

    Twilight reappeared in the observatory tower. Upon arrival she immediately ascertained several things simultaneously:

    ---The clock on the wall indicated she had muddled her long range teleportation spell with one of Starswirl's time spells(6), caused a massive transit lag, and she was now half an hour further behind than when she left

    ---Her mirror showed her that her hasty grooming had left her mane and tail a worse frazzled mess than Rarity's first attempt at doing Princess Cadence's mane

    ---Her earlier running amuck had left the observatory looking like it was struck by a tornado

    ---There was somepony knocking on the door and announcing, in a depressingly Royal Guard-like voice, that mumble mumble something somepony mumble was requesting entrance

    ---She had half a s'more stuck in her hair

    ---The paperwork on her table had just caught fire.(7)

    Scream, water water where's the water? Go for the flower vase, it has water-- whups smash, at least the flames are out, smoke everywhere, ponies still knocking, yelling something, augh, quick keep everything under control, tornado to sweep loose trash out of the room, augh too much! It'll have to do tiara tiara tiara--

    In one last burst Twilight whipped the tiara through the air to herself, plunked it on her head, and threw the door open.

    Alicornundrum - FiMFetch.net (2)

    "Yes, how may I help you?"

    Outside the door stood a pair of very concerned looking guards, who were escorting a quartet of extremely concerned looking mares. The sight that greeted their eyes was that of the newest ruler of Equestria, mane in disarray and half a s'more stuck to her ear, grinning maniacally at them while loose papers slowly fluttered down behind her. An awkward second passed. A table behind her, covered in smoldering papers, burst into open flame.

    One of the four looked at the others. "It looks like we arrived just in time..."

    Dear Twilight,

    I have been sitting here going over the schedule for today and it occurred to me that I have over-emphasized the importance of the miscellaneous appointments I named. Please, do not rush and do not panic-- the schedule I gave is just a very loose 'want-to' list, and we shall get to each event on the list as time allows. The whole point of the next few days will be to walk you through the typical routine of a Princess, give you a chance to adjust. Nopony is expecting you to be Johnny-on-the-spot just yet; you can afford to be fashionably late if need be.You have been Princess for only a day, after all, and we have not even selected your personal staff yet.

    Speaking of which, to help get you up and on your hooves I am sending four of my most trusted and reliable hoofmaidens. They are in your service now; think of them as the starter set for your own staff. ;)I cannot overemphasize how important a reliable hoofmaiden can be to you. They will tend to your personal needs as a princess, they will be a voice of counsel, an ear to confide in and a shoulder to lean on, and they can often be the difference between an entire day running like clockwork and completely falling to pieces.

    Their names are Cherry Blossom, Sea Foam, White Dove and Snowcap.

    Don't worry, you'll learn to tell them apart ;)

    Sincerely,

    H.R.M Princess Celestia

    Twilight lowered the scroll and looked up through her shampooed mane at the four identical white mares fussing over her. "I certainly hope so," she said. "I've never seen four ponies who looked so much alike." She wasn't joking, either. They were all pure white with blue eyes and golden manes and tails. Even their cutie marks were identical; all four seemed to have a simplified version of Celestia's own golden sun on their flanks.

    The four giggled simultaneously. "We'll tell you our secret in a minute, your Highness," one said. "If you haven't guessed it by then, that is."

    True to Celestia's written description, the moment the quartet had arrived they had taken one look at the disarray surrounding their princess and put things to right. They had taken a look at the washroom facilities with a critical eye, deemed them 'insufficient for a princess's needs," and bundled a feebly protesting Twilight off to Celestia's own salon. The castle's cleaning staff had been summoned in their wake, and were busy cleaning up the mess in the observatory in Twilight's absence while the quartet were busy primping and preening(8) the new Princess and getting her ready for the day.

    The salon was Celestia's own enormous bathroom, replete with marble tile and gilded fixtures and all the amenities of the Ponyville spa and a few more that would have made Aloe and Lotus squeal and pass out with glee.

    They were deft and gentle and skilled, but they were also astonishingly fast. Twilight wasn't sure whether she felt like a princess having a day at the spa or a racing carttaking a pit stop in the Indianapoloosa(9) Five Hundred.

    They had begun by filling the enormous pool-sized bath, pouring in perfumes and oils, and then submerging the frazzled alicorn in it before she could protest. One began shampooing her mane (which made her feel a bit odd), another shampooing her tail (which was really uncomfortably personal) a third jumped in and started scrubbing her back (which was even more disconcerting in its own way) and the last took to scrubbing her hooves with a small brush (which wouldn't have been quite so awkward if the brush didn't keep tickling her frogs.)

    Before Twilight could get embarrassed by the rather intimate attention, they had her out of the tub, dried off with towels and spells, and laid her out on a salon couch while they attacked from all four sides with brushes, curry combs, perfume, makeup, mane gel and other grooming products Twilight couldn't even name. Countless little brushes, bottles and tubes floated around her and--

    "Wait a minute. How are you doing that? You're all earth ponies!" Twilight said.

    The quartet laughed. "I guess we can tell you now," the one painting her hooves said. "Or, well, show you." All four of them wore delicate chokers around their neck, set with a single large sapphire. The one around her neck suddenly let out a flare of lavender light, and when it passed she had a unicorn horn and a cherry blossom cutie mark. "It's a shapechanging spell," Cherry Blossom said, undoing her choker and holding it up in her magic so Twilight could see it. "Princess Celestia crafted these for us."

    The others did the same. One sprouted wings, and gained a cutie mark of a mourning dove. Another remained the same, but her cutie mark changed to a snowy mountain peak."Amazing," Twilight said. "But why?"

    The fourth one spoke up. "Mostly because of me, your Highness." With a lavender flash she changed. Her transformation was most startling; her back legs disappeared and were replaced by a dolphin-like tail. Her cutie mark was a cresting wave. Twilight yeeped in surprise. "A sea pony??" Her astonishment gave way to delight. "A sea pony! I've never met one of your tribe before!"

    "Celestia visited our kingdom once with a water-breathing spell," Sea Foam said. "I was assigned as her hoofmaiden during her visit, and showed her how to braid her hair with seashells to keep the waves from tangling it. She was so pleased with the results she hired me away from King Triton and crafted this so I could get about."

    White Dove chuckled as she brushed out Twilight's mane. "That, and she already had the three of us. We already looked so much alike that she decided to go all the way. I think it amuses her to have four hoofmaidens who are exactly alike but for one little detail."

    "Or not so little detail," Sea Foam said, waggling her tail. The others giggled.

    "Plus, it keeps Prince Blueblood from bothering Sea Foam," Snowcap said, rolling her eyes. "That prissy pony thinks himself a great lady's stallion, andnothing would give him bigger bragging rights with his 'friends' than carving a notch on the bedpost with a mer-mare."

    Twilight gaped at the bluntness of the earth pony's statement, but Cherry Blossom floored her even further. "I know," she tsked, "Would you believe that a bunch of them actually keep score? They keep little books listing their 'conquests' and assign each other points..."

    The new princess was stunned. "How on earth do you know that?" Twilight blurted out.

    Cherry Blossom sighed. "I dated one of his 'noble' friends," she said. "Briefly. VERY briefly. As in 'one date.' Dinner, movie, dancing--- except before we left I found his little black book, scoresheet and all. The dolt left it sitting in his washroom counter."

    "Or one of his disgruntled employees did," Sea Foam said. "I know the stallion. Word among the castle maids is he's a total pig to his staff."

    "What did you do?" Twilight gasped.

    Cherry Blossom's serene little smile turned wicked. "Gave him the shock of his life," she said. "He was rather startled when the meek little earth pony he was planning to ply with booze and seduce levitated him into his chandelier." Even Twilight joined in the laughter then. "Seriously though, Princess," Cherry Blossom said once the laughter had died down, "Watch yourself around Blueblood, or around any of the younger noblestallions."

    "Or any royal stallions period," White Dove added.

    Twilight was dismissive. "I really doubt any stallion would be foolish enough to try anything with me," she said sarcastically. "I am a princess now, after all."

    "And that's precisely why they'll try it, your Highness," Sea Foam said soberly. "You're a princess now. You're young, you're rather pretty--" here Twilight blushed-- "You have a throne, and maybe even someday a kingdom of your own. There are lots of stallions in the House of Lords, young and old, who are ambitious.They wouldn't hesitate to climb for power by climbing up on a young mare's back."

    Twilight gasped, but Sea Foam forged ahead. "And because you're young, and new, and... inexperienced... they'll see you as an easy conquest."

    "Or they'll try to trick you into an... indiscretion... or accuse you of one... to try to get leverage on you," White Dove warned. She shook her head. "Just... don't ever be caught alone with a stallion, your Highness. Always have a chaperone-- if not for your safety, then your reputation."

    "Even with... but... Ink Spot--" Twilight said unhappily.

    "You have a special somepony, your Highness?" Cherry Blossom said.

    Twilight nodded. The intrepid book editor had been on a trip out of country when all this had happened. Twilight was sure he would be on the next airship home the instant he heard the news, but... what was she getting him into? Would he want anything to do with a mare whose life was about to become... so complicated?

    "Oh, do tell us who he is," Sea Foam said eagerly. "What does he look like? That way we'll know to sneak him into your chambers when he comes by for---"

    "Eep!" Twilight's face turned red.

    "Sea Foam--" Cherry Blossom chided.

    "-- for a romantic evening," Sea Foam finished, sniffing. "Honestly, what do you think of me?"

    "Didn't you just tell me to never be alone with a stallion without a chaperone?" Twilight snipped, her face flaming.

    "We count," Sea Foam insisted.

    Twilight sighed. ....So very, very complicated.

    An hour later, a coiffed, perfumed, groomed, and much calmer Princess Twilight made her entrance into the royal throne room for the Court of the Day. Her tiara, torc and gilded hoofshoes gleamed as she walked serenely up the red carpet to join her mentor. Celestia smiled upon seeing her and motioned for her to take the throne next to her while the annunciator droned on through the preamble of several bland announcements and proclamations for the day. "Just in time. Well, I see the Quartet have done right by you," she said under her breath as Twilight sat down. "I've never seen you looking quite so refreshed."

    Twilight nodded. "They did manage to get me calmed down and ready for today," she admitted quietly. "Thank you for sending them. I actually feel composed enough to---" naturally, at this precise moment, her stomach growled. Twilight resisted the urge to facehoof. She'd skipped breakfast in all the panic...

    Celestia chuckled and motioned for a nearby page. "Fetch us both one of chef Ramsbottom's 'morning beverages,' " she whispered to him. He nodded and trotted off. A few minutes later, as they were hearing the first appeal of the day (two farmers disputing a land claim), he returned with two glasses of water. As it drew closer Twilight could see through the illusion: two large breakfast smoothies. Something they could sip at, rather than noshing away, grazing like a herder(10) in the middle of court. Ingenious. Twilight gratefully accepted hers, sipping carefully. Strawberry, banana. Delicious.

    Celestia sipped at her own. "So glad I thought of this," she said to Twilight without taking her eyes off the court. "Kept me from starving to death. If I ever figure out how to fit a cake into a blender I'll be set." Twilight smothered a snicker. "Oh, by the way, this arrived for you a short while ago. I think Spike sent it. We do need to teach him how to send to somepony other than Luna and I..." Celestia passed a sealed scroll to Twilight.

    Puzzled, Twilight broke the seal and opened it. Her expression went from one of puzzlement to such vivid dismay that even Celestia was surprised. "What is it, Twilight?" she asked.

    Twilight didn't respond. The scroll was short, brief, and to the point-- five words written in crayon.

    DEAR MOM

    ITS SATURDAY

    NYX

    "Ohhh horseapples," she said, just loud enough to be heard in every corner of the throne room.

    1) yes... ALL of them.

    2)An astronomy guide, an atlas of the Gryphon nations, Twilight's grade school diary, and a copy of the Camel Sutra

    3)A hearty lunch of wax fruit

    4)Soaking her mane with a wet washcloth and leaving her with a taste of soap her mouth.

    5)Four paperback romances, a bag of junk jewelry and Mare-di Gras beads from the festivities last night, and a sputtering angry baby dragon.

    6)Once you had memorized one or two of those it was surprisingly easy to do.

    7)Her reentry hadn't been as smooth and spark-free as she'd thought.

    8)Literally.

    9)Old Buffalo word for "Land of Many Tracks in Circles."

    10)A bit of a prejudiced stereotype-- that only cowponies actually "stooped" to grazing on grass right off the ground. It was a bald faced lie, and anypony who'd ever been caught between payday and grocery day when nopony was looking knew it... but the cliche' persisted.

    Chapter 4

    The royal carriage set down in front of Sugarcube Corner. Twilight stepped down to the street; the guards made as if to follow her, but she motioned for them to wait by the carriage. She hesitated at the door, took a deep breath and stepped inside.

    Nyx and Spike were sitting at the table, munching on the remains of a couple of muffins. Peewee was between them on the table, pecking at crumbs. Nyx was brooding listlessly flipping through one of her books. She barely glanced up when Twilight walked up to the table. Twilight winced; this was going to be an epic sulk.

    Twilight sat down. "I'm sorry, Nyx," she said simply."I let myself get in a panic and..." She put her hoof on Nyx's. "I'm so sorry." She looked at Spike. "Both of you."

    "It's okay," Nyx said, her voice indifferent. But at least she didn't pull away.

    "How long have you been here?"

    Nyx looked over at the remains of their meal. "About two and a half muffins," she said. "And a jumbo glass of milk."

    "Mr. Cake let us run a tab," Spike said. "We woulda gone to the library but... they're closed today and they already changed the locks."

    "Already?" Twilight said. The dismay in her voice was obvious. She shook her head; they would have, seeing as she was no longer the librarian-- and how it hurt to even think that. "Didn't you have a packed... lunch," Twilight finished lamely as Spike silently emptied the bag of waxed fruit and plastic junk jewelry on the table. "The waxed apple was tasty but I'm probably gonna be constipated later," he informed her.

    She groaned and facehoofed.

    "I really was flipping out, wasn't I," she said.

    Spike shrugged. "Eh, it wasn't your worst freakout," he said dismissively. "I'd give it a two out of ten, really."

    "Oh really." Twilight said drolly.

    Nyx was still a bit broody; she was still flipping through the book in front of her in a rather pointed manner. She stopped suddenly and stared at a page. "The heck is that all about?" Nyx said, turning the book around for Spike and pointing at a page.

    Spike made an awkward face. "It's, uh, got to do with how babies are made," he said.

    Nyx took a second look. "Sure isn't how Miss Cheerilee explained it," she said skeptically.

    Twilight looked over at the book. Yes, as luck would have it, the Camel Sutra. "Ahem," Twilight said. She plucked the book deftly out of Nyx's hooves and magically dropped it into her own saddlebag. "That reading's a little too grown up for you," she said.

    "Well you gave it to me," Nyx muttered sullenly.

    Twilight ignored her and gave Spike a look. "And it's a little mature for you too, mister,"she said.

    Spike gave her a look right back. "Oh please. You have me re-shelve all the books in the library twice a week. You think I don't read a few of them on occasion?"

    Twilight decided to let it slide. "Well I do have some good news," she said. "Princess Celestia sent us some help. I have four hoofmaidens now; they'll help keep things from going crazy like this again." She tried to meet Nyx's eye. "I think you'll like them," she said. "They're very interesting ponies." Nyx's ear pricked; her curiosity was piqued. "And they have a very interesting secret. I'm interested to see if you can figure out what it is..." Twilight gave her daughter a teasing grin. She knew from experience that the quickest way to get Nyx out of a sulk was to get her curious.

    Nyx tucked her ears back and kept her head down. She wasn't going to go for it, this time.

    Twilight sighed. "Nyx, this... this whole Princess thing... it's going to be hard. A lot harder than I expected. I'm afraid I'm going to make a lot of mistakes before I get it right. Please, I need you to be patient with me, okay? You're the most important thing in the world to me, and I don't want you to ever forget that, no matter what mistakes I make." She rested her chin on the table to look the filly in the eye. "Forgive me?" Twilight asked.

    Nyx grumped a bit then relented. "Okayyyy," she said reluctantly. "I was gonna anyway...." She shared a nuzzle with her Mom. "So what's their big secret?"

    Twilight chuckled and tousled her mane. "Well now that would be telling."

    "Awww--"

    "Tell you what; why don't we go back to the castle and you can meet them?" Twilight said. "Then we'll see if you can tell me." She got up from the table; Nyx and Spike followed suit, Spike scooping up Peewee in his claws. "I'll be in Court most of the day..." she winced a bit... "And part of the night, to make up for running out in the middle...." ouch, my aching circadian rhythms, she thought.... "So they'll be watching you and Spike."

    "Oh, hey, I'm gonna be kind of busy," Spike said as they trooped out the door. It was a bright sunny day and they squinted against the sunshine. "It's my training day."

    Twilight paused in mid stride. "Training day?"

    "Don'tcha remember? Shining Armor and Princess Cadence want me and Bright Eyes to train together at least twice a week. For..." he looked around carefully. "...You know."

    "What? Ohhhh, right. THAT "You Know," Twilight said.(1)

    "Yeah."

    "All the more reason to get back," Twilight said. She started trotting along.

    "Um, Twilight?"

    "What?" She stopped again.

    "The carriage is this way."

    "Oh. Right." Twilight turned around and trotted the other direction, heading for the waiting carriage with a little pain in her heart.

    The moment she'd stepped out the door she'd started trotting for the Golden Oaks library.

    1)For those that DON'T know, in Nyx's Family, Bright Eyes and Spike, due to a confluence of events and enchantments, became Champions of the Crystal Empire, much to the consternation of a pack of attacking dragons. We are assured by multiple sources that the resulting 'throw-down' was 'wicked righteous' and kicked prodigious amounts of plot.

    Chapter 5

    The royal guard were treated to a rather unusual spectacle that day. Several of the guard had come out to get a little exercise and practice in, only to find that one of the several training yards had been taken over by a grade school colt and a baby dragon playing soldier. At least they seemed to be playing soldier; they were wearing suits of odd looking armor, running about with training weapons and seemed dead set on half-killing each other.

    In the months since that fateful trip to the Crystal Empire, Bright Eyes and Spike hadn't been idle.They had taken to getting up early in the morning(1) and jogging to the schoolhouse before anypony else had arrived, and spending time training and exercising a little on the playground equipment while they waited for Cheerilee to arrive. They were both a great deal more fit than they'd been when they'd first met; Spike's pudge was gone and he was looking a bit leaner (and maybe, just maybe a smidge taller) and Bright Eye's skinny colt body was filling out with the start of some decent muscle.

    Of course the "training regimen" was almost entirely of Spike and Bright Eyes' own invention.(2) The Princesses had left them largely to their own devices. Despite everything, they were just children-- and neither Luna, Celestia or Cadence wanted to press them too hard; there would be time enough for that sort of thing when they were both adults. In addition their peculiar role in the national defenses of both Equestria and the Crystal Empire meant that their training involved a few odd quirks and routines that would make no sense to anypony not in the know. And which, truthfully, looked a bit ridiculous.

    The training yard was an open rectangle, a courtyard large enough to hold the Golden Oaks library twice over with room to spare, surrounded on three sides by archways and a low stone wall. Ponies, mostly off-duty Guards, had idly gathered and were leaning on the stone wall, watching in puzzled curiosity and chatting quietly to one another.

    At the moment Spike and Bright Eyes were practicing the skills that had been fundamental in saving their bacon back in the Crystal Empire. Spike was in the center of the courtyard, dressed in his crystal armor (to their mutual delight, they'd learned that they could summon the armor at will). He was surrounded on all sides by poles,more or less spaced out in a grid, each pole topped by an egg. Other eggs were set on little cups here and there on the ground. Scattered among the pillars were about a half dozen straw and cloth training dummies. He was wielding a crystal staff in his claws.

    Bright Eyes was running around the perimeter, his eyes fixed on Spike. He was armored as well, his visored, airfoiled helmet cutting an odd figure amongst the backdrop of ponies in greco-roman armor.He was shouting a continuous stream of instructions at his partner as Spike ran through the obstacle course. The dragonling hopped over the scattered eggs, dodged between the standing poles and lashed out with his staff left, right, forward and back as Bright Eyes instructed.

    It was comical as hell. He had no form whatsoever; he flailed with his staff like a pony trying to kill a snake in a phone booth, thrashing about comically as he lashed out at the straw dummies, chaff dust flying when he made a hit, staggering wildly as he tried to avoid stepping on eggs underfoot or knocking any off the poles around him. More than one onlooker chuckled at the scene; pretty soon the whole crowd was laughing outright.

    The acoustics in the courtyard were good; Spike and Bright Eyes could hear every laugh and condescending remark. The only sign they gave was the grimace on Spike's face and the steadily spreading blush on Bright Eye's cheeks. Finally one catcall of derision was one too many-- "what is this, the Foal's Maypole Dance?"-- and Spike stopped where he stood andturned to face the voice. He marched over to the edge of the field-- still stepping between the poles per Bright Eyes' instructions-- and turned his helmeted face to the speaker. "Do you mind shutting up?" He barked at the speaker. "We're trying to train here, and your stupid yapping is distracting us!"

    The sounds of amusem*nt slowly turned to murmurs of puzzlement and surprise as the guards he was addressing realized that the dragonling was blindfolded. The visor of his helmet was down, and it was a solid, opaque piece of crystal-- completely blocking his sight. This was followed by the realization that he had struck every manikin at least one blow, and had not cracked or jostled a single egg.

    "You got a problem with how my trainees are trainin' ?" The voice was calm and level and as deep as a barrel. The idling soldiers turned around and gulped as one. Standing directly behind them was a red crystal earth pony the size of a buffalo. He was dressed in a lieutenant's armor and was eyeing them all with the air of somepony debating on whether it was worth having to clean out his horseshoe to step on them.

    Today was the first day that Spike and Bright Eyes had received any "official" training or oversight. Lieutenant Rock Steady and Diamond Bright were there as official liasons from the Crystal Empire... more realistically, they were there to oversee Spike and Bright Eyes' training, and coordinate their own teams with them. The Crystal Champion team (when they were old enough, at least) was to be coordinated with their platoons, who would act as support teams for when the Champion was on the battlefield.

    Diamond Bright was commander of the S&S "Builders and Busters" platoon (3), who specialized in sapping, sabotage, demolition and unusual--- VERY unusual--- weapons ( Quite frankly, nothing got more unusual than a musclebound dragon in magic armor....)They were known for crazy stunts and razor's edge brinkmanship that turned their commanding officers gray before their time.(4)

    Rock Steady's Heavy Platoon was a fifty-fifty mix of monstrously strong earth ponies and Imperial Pegasus Scouts(5). It took ponies with nerves of steel to run in and out under the stomping feet of a giant monster, or fly within range of their thrashing limbs or flaming breath just to provide tactical support, and Rock Steady's group already had an almost frightening reputation for stoic fearlessness.

    Spike had his own suspicions as to the reason those two had been selected. He figured that Shining Armor wanted Rock Steady to have a chance to see a Crystal Empire unicorn as something besides a conquering despot. It had worked like a charm; the hulking earth pony had bonded with the diminutive colt almost immediately. Bright Eyes hero-worshipped Rock Steady as much as Scootaloo did Rainbow Dash, and as Rock Steady put it, it was hard to hold a grudge against a unicorn he could pick up in one hoof.(6)

    As for Diamond Bright, Spike guessed anyone who could come through one of Nyx's debacles as unflappably as him was ideal for hanging around the Sparkle household.

    The guards thoughtfully considered Rock Steady's question. They also thoughtfully considered his size, muscles, the fact that he had reportedly smacked a full grown dragon in the face with a boulder the size of a house, and the general less-than-amicable tone of his voice at the moment. As a group they shook their heads 'no.'

    Except for one pony. You know the one. The one in every group who imagines that he is appointed the speaker for the group, and whose first thought is that he needs to question everything, and who is this big overgrown sparkly guy anyway, he's not even in the chain of command so far as I know.... "What the buck kind of training are they doing anyway?" this tactical genius decided to ask. "Some sort of morale-boosting BS or something?"

    "The kind with a security clearance higher than you lot will ever even see the backside of," Diamond Bright said behind them. The lanky yellow crystal pony put his clipboard away and glared at the stallions idling around the training area. "Sergeant!" He said, playing the odds that there was one somewhere in the crowd. There was; he snapped to attention, took a look at the decorations on Diamond Bright's uniform, then somehow managed to snap to attention while being AT attention. "These fine ponies want to chip in their two bits on our training regimen. I understand that Canterlot once included in its training regimen a hiking trail that circles the wall of the city. Is that still there?"

    "Sir, yes sir!"

    "Good," Diamond Bright said. "Have these ponies conduct an on-hoof survey of it from start to end. Preferably at a healthy canter. When they reach the other end they can report back to us it on its condition." A smothered groan of dismay went up from the soldiers.

    "You heard the man, slackers!" the sergeant barked. "Get to the track, on the double!"

    Rock Steady chuckled as he watched the dejected soldiers vacating the courtyard at a trot. "And ponies think I'm the mean one," he said.

    "It was an easy way to get everypony without clearance to leave-- and to stay away," Diamond Bright shrugged.

    Spike and Bright Eyes had crossed the courtyard and were standing together, looking up at the two guardponies a tad anxiously. "Um... we're not gonna have to run that trail... are we?" Spike asked faintly. "It's something like ten MILES..."

    Rock Steady chuckled, a deep, rumbling sound. "Take it easy, pint size," he said. "We ain't gonna work you to death. Least not for a few more years." Both Spike and Bright Eyes visibly relaxed.

    "We've been watching," Diamond Bright said, pulling out his clipboard. "You've actually been doing pretty well. Regular calisthenics, situps, pushups, continuous runs, so on and so forth, in the upper marks for your age group... ah, well, for ponies, that is," he amended. "We're sort of having to guesstimate the stats on baby dragons--"

    "Dragonling," Spike muttered. "I got tired of being called a baby when I turned EIGHT. At FIFTEEN it's past insulting."

    "Right. Dragonling." Diamond Bright gave a half grin and actually took a moment to make a note of it. "After that, though, we're having a little trouble evaluating some of the skill training you've been doing."

    Spike pulled a face. "Yeah, it looks kind of weird. We kinda had to make stuff up as we went along."

    "Actually, Dumb-Plot back there--" Rock Steady said, pointing a hoof in the direction the hecklers had left-- "kinda had a point. We cain't figger exactly what you're trying to do."

    "Like what?" Bright Eyes asked.

    "Like this here." The brawny crystal pony waved a hoof at the courtyard, still covered in poles, eggs, and straw dummies.

    "Not that it wasn't impressive," Diamond Bright said. "But-- well, let's start with this. What's it for, exactly?"

    Spike leaned on his staff and looked steadfastly at the ground.. "Well, you know that back in the Crystal Empire... in the fight... I got blinded. Couldn't see where I was going, what I was doing. "

    Diamond Bright nodded. "That's how you ended up with Bright Eyes being your Spotter. Did a heck of a job, too." Bright Eyes puffed out his chest a little at the compliment.

    Spike kept looking at the ground. "Yeah, well. I still smashed a lot of buildings. A lot of ponies could've--" he stopped and started over. "I figured if I have to ever... go gigantic again... I'll be fighting some monster. And I'll be in the middle of some town or city. And there'll be ponies everywhere--" he shuddered. " He shook his head. "Besides," he went on in a more chipper tone. "I needed to practice following Bright Eye's instructions and stuff. Even when my eyes are working, he's the eyes in the back of my head..."

    "Well you certainly have that part down..." Diamond Bright said cautiously. "But you do realize that accidents still happen--"

    "It won't happen," Spike said fiercely. "I'll practice until I can walk through the Crystal Empire without cracking a single flagstone, if I have to."

    Diamond Bright shared a look with Rock Steady. Rock Steady took the hint. "Here. Lemme up your game a li'l," Rock Steady said. "Up the challenge a little bit on your training."

    "Okay. How?" Spike said amiably.

    "Well, if yer fightin' dragons or other monsters, they ain't gonna be sittin' still like them dummies," Rock Steady pointed out. "Lemme take the place o' them straw monsters, give you an opponent that's moving around a bit."

    "Oh, okay," Spike said. "Lemme get one of the padded staffs." The crystal staff he was holding shrank in on itself and vanished. He grinned when the two Lieutenants blinked in surprise. "The Crystal Armor comes with a whole bunch of different weapons and stuff that we can summon," he said. "Cool, huh?"

    "I can't wait to try the Rainbow Cannon," Bright Eyes said, rubbing his hooves in anticipation.

    "The rainb---? You know what, I think that one can wait," Diamond Bright said. "...As long as absolutely possible," he added under his breath. He didn't know what a Rainbow Cannon was, but he was fairly sure he didn't want a pair of grade schoolers demonstrating it for him.

    Rock Steady picked a training staff from one of the racks of weapons in the corner and took his place on the other side of the courtyard. "Let's make this interestin'," he said. "You gotta gimme one pushup for every egg broken."

    Spike blinked. He thought about it for a second and grinned. "You know what? Sure, okay. But you gotta do the same."

    "Sounds fair."

    "--And I get to do this without the blind visor down."

    Rock Steady nodded. "Works for me."

    Spike held out his hand; there was a spark in his gauntleted palm and a new staff--- this one padded on both ends--- appeared in his hand. "Ready," he said.

    Rock Steady held his staff in his teeth. "Call it," he said to Diamond.

    The yellow pony nodded. "Okay? Ready? GO!" he said.

    Spike began racing toward Rock Steady as fast as he could go, jumping over the fragile obstacles and dodging between the standing poles. But before he got halfway there, Rock Steady reared, bellowed-- and began swinging his staff in every direction around him, knocking poles over and sending eggs flying, trampling the ones set on the ground under his feet.

    "Hey!!" Spike yelled in outrage. "Stop that! No fair!!" Rock Steady ignored him and went on with his rampage, smashing eggs by the dozen, sweeping his staff through them like a scythe.

    "I said stop it!!" Spike yelled, trying to dive between the fragile poles and dodge Rock Steady's wild swings at the same time.

    "Make me!" Rock Steady said around the staff in his teeth. He took the staff by one end and spun in a circle, sending another dozen eggs to their yolkey doom.

    "You jerk!" Spike charged, heedless of the two or three eggs he trampled himself. He began pummeling the guardpony about the head and shoulders with his staff, trying to drive him back.

    ...To no avail. The mountainous pony kept on causing as much collateral damage as he could. He dropped the staff and backed up a few steps, then deliberately stomped on an egg while Spike watched. "I can do two hunnerd pushups in my sleep," he said. "How many kin you do?" He lifted his enormous hoof and stomped on another.

    "RRRAAAAAAHHHH!!" Spike lost it. He dropped his staff, reared back and spat a six foot gout of flame at Rock Steady's hooves. That did make Rock Steady back up. He danced backwards with a whoop of surprise as the flames singed his fetlocks, till he was clear of the obstacles.

    "Was wonderin' when you'd finally do that," he said, snuffing out a few burning hairs on his fetlocks. "You gotta stop holding ba-- whoa!" Spike had charged him, yelling and swinging wildly. Rock Steady let him get a few whacks in, then tripped and pinned the dragonling to the ground with one hoof. "Easy, kid-- they're just eggs!"

    Spike grappled with the hoof on his chest, trying to pry it away. "They're not just eggs, they're PEOPLE!!" he yelled. He froze, eyes wide in confusion as he realized what he'd said.

    Rock Steady lifted his hoof. Spike scrambled to his feet, anger and confusion and dismay running across his face. He scurried over to the wreckage of the obstacle course, stepping delicately among the eggs, looking for something. He found one egg that had survived it's tumble to the grass and picked it up, cradling it in his claws. He stood for a moment, then crouched down, tail curled around his feet, a tiny armored ball of unhappiness.

    The earth trembled lightly under him as Rock Steady slowly stepped up and stood behind him. The enormous pony didn't say anything.

    "They're so tiny," Spike said. "Everypony is so tiny when you're that big. And so fragile. All it'd take is one misstep-- one slip-- and I could smash somepony into nothing. If I hadn't been as fast with my hands as I was, Rarity would have been smashed. Bright Eyes would have been a stain on the ground. And in the hospital, I saw ponies-- whole families-- who'd been in buildings I knocked down or tripped over..." He wiped his eyes on his arm. "I gotta be perfect. I gotta be."

    "That ain't yore problem t' worry about," Rock Steady said bluntly.

    "Yes it is!"--"

    "No it ain't," Rock Steady said sternly. "All them ponies that got hurt. Those were our fault, not yours."

    "How do you figure that?" Spike said scornfully.

    "Cause it was our job-- the Guard's job-- to clear folks out of the battle zone," Rock Steady said soberly. "We weren't prepared. We got sloppy." He paused. "We got lucky.

    "That's what this trainin's about," he said. He flopped down on the ground next to Spike, heedless of the crushed eggs and toppled poles. "Makin' sure we're all working together off the same page, the next time this kind of thing happens. That's why we got assigned to you."

    "Really?" Spike said.

    "Rock Steady and I each have a platoon, and they've both been assigned to this," Diamond Bright said. "We're to provide backup firepower, ground support, and to handle evacuation and cordoning off the battle zone when you, ah--" he made a 'growing' motion with one hoof.

    "What he said," Rock Steady said. "That's our job; clearin' folks out so you can tackle the monster without worryin' about steppin' on nopony."

    Bright Eyes had trotted over and joined them. "Wouldn't it be better if we just didn't step on stuff at all?" he asked soberly.

    Rock Steady heaved a sigh that stirred the grass yards away. "Tell me, kid; didja ever wonder why we didn't fight back against King Sombra?"

    Bright Eyes blinked. "Kinda, yeah," he admitted. When he'd been littler, hiding in the tunnels and sub-basem*nts under the Crystal City, he'd been terribly angry about it. Why didn't anypony fight back? There were thousands of Crystal Ponies and just one Sombra!

    "We did," Rock Steady said. "Some of us tried, anyway. But every time anypony did anything, anything at all--- Sombra would smash something. A building. A street full of ponies." Bright Eyes gasped. "a whole block full of buildings... Or he'd cut off rations so ponies starved. Or he'd have his soldiers drag a few hundred more ponies at random to the mines, for nothing." Rock Steady closed his eyes in pain and sighed again. "See, he had one big dirty cheating advantage over us; he didn't care how many ponies he hurt.

    "Same reason I could smash alla them eggs without thinkin' about it. I can do pushups till the cows come home. You can't. I was willing to pay a higher price than you could. I didn't care how many eggs I broke cause it cost me nothing, and it cost you everything. And if you ever have to fight a dragon or a hydra or an ursa major or some other monster, and they figure that out, they'll have you over a barrel. You'll hold back, and they won't.

    "That's why the Princesses put us with you. It's a good thing you're trying t' learn how to avoid breakin' stuff or hurtin' people by accident. But yer a big fella; stuff's gonna get broken, and yeah, ponies and other folk might get hurt. But streets can be paved, buildings can be fixed... and anypony who's out running around underneath a giant monster's feet, well, they knew the risks. But if you don't throw your all into fighting whatever bad guy you're facing, he'll roll right over you-- and destroy a whole lot more than he would have." Spike winced, but nodded.

    "Next time you go out there-- and Maker willing it'll be a long, long time from now-- you let us worry about clearing the field; you just concentrate on kicking that sonuvabucker's plot." Rock Steady gave Spike a friendly nudge with his hoof. "All right?"

    Spike nodded. "You got it."

    Bright Eyes looked unusually somber. "I'm sorry, Spike," he said.

    "What for?" Spike asked, puzzled.

    Bright Eyes shrugged, a guilty look on his face. "I've been running around thinking this was all exciting and cool and--- not really thinking about what it's like for you," he confessed. "Or how dangerous or scary it could be. I was being a dumb foal, thinking it was all a big game--"

    "Now hold on," Diamond Bright said, holding up a hoof. "Don't be too hard on yourself, now."

    "Yeah," Spike said with a half laugh. "Even with all this heavy stuff, it's still pretty cool."

    "Yeah, but-- now I feel kinda bad about it," Bright Eyes said. "When it happened it was all scary and exciting and wild---"

    "Hey," Rock Steady said in his low, calm voice. "No matter who you are, you gotta like what yer doin', at least a little bit. Just 'cause what you're doing is serious don't mean you can't enjoy it. Stoppin' monsters and villains ought to feel good."

    "Too right," Diamond Bright said enthusiastically. "You were the good guys, they were the bad guys, and they made a most satisfying THUMP when they hit the ground. What's not to like in that?"

    The colt smiled, but only hesitantly. Rock Steady took note of it. Only one cure for it... He heaved himself to his feet. "Eh, enough lyin' down on the job," he said. He shook the dust and grass off himself. "They got a shootin' range around here?"

    "Yes, just a short hop from here," Diamond Bright said. "Why?"

    "Well, while we're running down the list on what all gear these boys have, and what-all training they need, we might as well have 'em test-fire that 'Rainbow Cannon,' whatever it is," the laconic red pony said.

    That did the trick. "All riiiight!" Spike and Bright Eyes brohoofed.

    Diamond Bright slumped fatalistically. "Very well," he said. "But let me go fetch my platoon."

    "What for?"

    "Because the Busters would never forgive me if I let them miss it."

    1) Okay, BRIGHT EYES had taken to getting up early in the morning. Spike had taken to getting dragged out of bed.

    2) Gleaned from various popular exercise programs, and not a few comic books.

    3) Unofficial slogan: "Hey Y'all, watch THIS"

    4) The most terrifying phrase in the S&S lexicon wasn't "Fire in the Hole" or even "Incoming!" but "I wonder what would happen if..."

    5)Slogan: Si vobis primum non videmus. "Not if we see you first."

    6) And did, on occasion, to the amusem*nt of onlookers.

    Chapter 6

    "...And now they're both Champions of the Crystal Empire," Nyx finished.

    "Goodness, that's a story and a half," Cherry Blossom said. The others chuckled. "I can't wait to meet those two."

    Twilight, swamped with the duties of the crown, had put Nyx in the care of the Quartet. They were in Twilight's observatory tower now, getting to know one another. It had been a bit tense at first; the four ladies-in-waiting had been a bit apprehensive of 'the filly Nightmare Moon,' and said filly hadn't been quite sure what to make of the identical quadruplets in her mother's service.But the Quartet, after some cautious opening courtesies, had quickly learned that the littlest alicorn princess was like any other filly her age and had warmed to her almost immediately, while Nyx to her relief had found the four elegant ponies to be nothing like the stiff, stuffy servants of royalty as she had feared. They were warm and friendly and had an impish sense of humor. Nyx took to them like a duckling to water.

    Speaking of which, she was about to get a dunking. It was getting late in the afternoon and the Quartet had unanimously decided that a certain little filly needed a bath. Were they to be honest with themselves though it was just as much an excuse for the four hoofmaids to play dress-up and makeup with the little filly as much as anything resembling responsibility.

    Nyx stood by the tub, towel and rubber ducky levitating in her grip, looking apprehensive. While she and the four hoofmaids had whiled the day away, the castle staff - under the Quartet's watchful eye - had renovated the royal quarters right around them. (It was astonishing what could be accomplished in mere hours with magic, motivation, and more money than Croesus.)Among other things that had been changed, the tiny cramped (by royal standards) bathroom had been replaced with a luxuriously appointed water closet.(1) The claw footed bathtub had been thrown out, and now there was a sumptuous open bath to one side on the main floor-- a sunken tub the size of a palatial reflecting pool tiled in white and blue marble, with every grooming amenity imaginable arranged around it.

    She stood now on the tiled edge of the sunken bath, biting her lip. "Go on, dear," Cherry Blossom said. "What are you waiting for?"

    Nyx looked at the enormous bath. It was big enough to swim laps in. "Aren't you supposed to wade in with a partner?" she said uncertainly.

    The Quartet laughed. "Well, you heard the Princess," Snowcap teased, looking at Sea Foam. Chuckling, Sea Foam led Nyx down into the water. The other three followed, fetching shampoos and scrubs as they stepped down into the water. Snowcap was the last, tossing the duckie in with a flip of her head. They sat around the little filly and began shampooing her mane and tail. It felt weird at first, but Nyx soon relaxed as hooves massaged her scalp.

    Nyx regarded the four. "Mom said you four had a secret," she said, curiosity piqued. "I've been trying to guess all day, but I just don't know. You said you're not all identical sisters..."

    "Fraid not," Cherry Blossom said.

    "Are yoooouuuu.... from the Crystal Empire?" Nyx hazarded. Then she scowled at herself. "No no, you're not sparkly... are you changelings?" At their astonished looks she said, "I have a classmate who's a changeling. She's really nice and funny. But..." the filly tapped her chin with a hoof. "Nah. Those Changeling lanterns would be making you turn back to yourselves all the time and people would be all freaked out and stuff.

    "Are yooouuu... from a really really far away country?"

    Sea Foam grinned. "You're getting warmer," she said. There was a spark of sapphire light. Her dolphin tail lifted up out of the water and slapped down, splashing the filly.

    Nyx shook her drenched mane out of her eyes and gawped at the transformed hoofmaid. Her squeal of glee split the air. "Omigosh, you're a seapony!!" Her forehooves splashed in the water in excitement.

    The Quartet all broke into peals of laughter at the little filly's excitement. "That's one out of three, Highness," Sea Foam said, giving her a wink. "Now you just have to guess the rest of us." Her tail fluke slapped the water, drenching Nyx (and a protesting Cherry Blossom, Snow Cap and White Dove) yet again.

    "Hey, no fair!" Nyx began tossing water back at the seapony mare with her hooves.

    The royal bath swiftly broke out into a gleeful splash-fight.

    It was about an hour later when Spike and Bright Eyes came trooping in. The two came bursting in through the door, still dressed in their Crystal Champion armor. They were dusty, sooty, obviously very sweaty and joking back and forth boisterously.

    The Quartet had moved on from the bath and grooming and were now seated around the living nook, giving Nyx her first introduction to the arts of makeup. Cherry blossom was carefully applying hoof polish to Nyx's hooves, while Nyx was using her magic to dab blush on Cherry Blossom's cheeks. They all looked up in surprise as the two boys came bouncing in. "Oh, hi Spike! Hi Bright Eyes!" Nyx chirped. "How'd practice go?"

    "Pretty good," Spike chortled, wiping a smudge of soot off his cheek with his arm. "We got to test fire the Rainbow Cannon."

    "Yeah, it was awesome!" Bright Eyes said.

    Multi-hued light suddenly flared over the rim of the Canterlot skyline, seeming to emanate from the general direction of the Royal Guard training grounds. There was a sound like a power chord played on a mile-high electric guitar , followed by a blaze of white light and an enormous KATHOOM. A rainbow colored mushroom cloud rose over the rooftops, glowing from within.

    "Jamie love big boom!" somepony screamed in euphoria.

    "Too bad we could only fire the small version," Spike said. "Say, is there any place we can clean up... whoa, awesome, an indoor pool! Last one in is a rotten egg!" The dragonling dispelled his armor and ran for the sunken bath. He whooped and leapt in with a cannonball, sending water splashing into the air. He surfaced a moment later, rubbing his head. "Ow. This thing's kind of shallow... and why's there a rubber ducky in here?"

    "See? You're supposed to wade in with a buddy!" Bright Eyes scolded, galloping after his fellow champion.

    The girls laughed. Snowcap trotted over to enlighten the two grubby boys about the proper use of the 'swimming pool;' White Dove got to her hooves and gave Nyx a little curtsy. "Shall I set out biscuits and tea, Milady?" she said.

    Nyx clapped her hooves. "Oh, yes, that would be nice." She paused. "But, um, wouldn't cookies go better with tea?" She was having a difficult time picturing Rarity's tea set back home with a gravy boat. White Dove giggled and proceeded to explain the difference between cookies, biscuits, tea cakes and biscotti.

    A short while later and the three children, all groomed and freshly scrubbed by the hoofmaids (which had annoyed the dragonling to no end and had left the young colt in a somewhat flustered state of mind) were seated round a tea table set for six: Nyx, Bright Eyes, and Spike... and Bilbo Burro, Smarty Pants and Sir Scorch the dragon. Cherry Blossom and White Dove had quickly taken the opportunity to turn it into a teachable moment, and began the process of instructing the new princess and the unicorn Champion in the obscure details and rituals of afternoon tea. The effectiveness of the lesson was somewhat diluted by the fact that three of the participants were plush toys... and two of the ones that weren't insisted on using the plummiest Canterlot accents they could possibly manage. "I say," Nyx drawled, "shall I top awff yoah cup, good suh?"

    "Oh, rawther, yes," Bright Eyes replied, holding out his cup in his magic. Nyx levitated the teapot over and carefully filled the cup to the brim. "Thenk yaew." He took a sip. "I say, might I have anothah one of those little cookies?"

    Nyx faked a scandalized gasp. "Good Suh!" She said in her frostiest, loftiest tones. "These ahhn't cookies-- theyah biscotti and tea cakes!"

    Bright Eyes put a hoof to his mouth. "Oh! Drehdfully sorreh, terrible blunder..." There was a snicker from an undisclosed location.

    "Quite awl right. Shall Suh Scorch or Suh Bilbo be wanting any moh?"

    Bright Eyes pretended to listen to the dolls flanking him. "Oh newh, rawther not," he said with a grin. He leaned across the table. "They tell me they're quite stuffed! Aw haw haw haw!"

    "Oh ho ho ho! Mistuh Eyes, you're such a card! Oh ho ho ho!"

    Spike groaned and facepalmed. "If the fruity accents don't get you banished from the upper crust, the bad puns will," he grumbled.

    There was an explosive snort from the direction of the royal desk. Snow Cap had retreated to the office corner and was in the midst of sorting Princess Twilight's first batch of royal correspondence. She was having a bit of trouble paying attention to her work with the three youngsters cutting up halfway across the room. A fit of giggles came from elsewhere in the open tower, as Cherry Blossom and Sea Foam set about preparing the tower for her royal Highness' return.

    Nyx suddenly looked up. "Oh! Would you like to join us?" she said to the Quartet.

    White Dove smiled as she put down another tray of sandwiches (Spike had snarfed down the first batch.) "Thank you Milady, but that would be improper."

    Nyx frowned. "Why?"

    "Because we're the servants," White Dove explained.

    Sea Foam made a sound of assertion as she trotted past with a floral arrangement. "Royalty doesn't sit down to tea with the servants or the lower classes."

    Nyx frowned. She didn't like the sound of that 'lower classes' thing. "But..."

    "You're a Princess now, Milady," White Dove said patiently. "And Bright Eyes is a Champion, which is like a knight... and he's your royal guest. But servants are just the help. You and Spell Nexus didn't have brunch with the help when you were Queen, did you?"

    Nyx's frown deepened. "Nnno," she admitted reluctantly. "But Spell Nexus and I were the bad guys. We were being jerks!" This made no sense; was she supposed to be like... like that, now?

    "Okay, bad example," Sea Foam admitted as she set the flowers up. "But Celestia and Luna don't either, do they? Nobles and royalty only associate with nobles and royalty. Servants are one class, nobles and princes and princesses and such are another."

    "But why?" Nyx insisted.

    White Dove sighed and shook her head. It was difficult explaining the obvious."It's just... some classes of ponies are just better than others. It's just the way it is," she said gently. She trotted off to fill the teapot.

    Cherry Blossom trotted past, a stack of towels on her back. She noticed the distressed look on Nyx's face and paused by the tea table, leaning in to speak under her breath. "Don't let her get you down," she said with a conspiratorial grin. "White Dove is always overstating things. Just think of it like this for now: if you go to a restaurant with your mother, does the waiter sit down and have dinner with you?"

    "No," Nyx scoffed. "Of course not."

    "Exactly. We're like the waiter; it's our job to be running about and taking orders while everyone else is having tea."

    Nyx seized on the obvious loophole. "Oh, you have to take orders?" She pointed an imperious little hoof at an empty space at the table. "Then I royally order you to sit down and have tea with us," she said loftily.

    Cherry Blossom grinned, and booped Nyx on the nose. "Nice try, Milady," she chuckled. "Try again in a few years." She trotted off with the towels while Nyx puffed out her cheeks in annoyance.

    "Um, excuse me, I have to go to the little colt's room?" Bright Eyes said shyly. "Too much tea."

    "Oh, um.." Nyx looked around. They'd put the bath down on the main floor, now where'd they put the other important bits of plumbing?

    "Second balcony, up the stairs on the left," Snow Cap called out. Bright Eyes nodded gratefully and galloped for his relief. There was a tiny thunder of hooves up the stairs and the sound of a slamming door. The Quartet all giggled. "Hard to believe that little fellow is a Champion of the Crystal Empire," Snow Cap said.

    "Tell me about it," Spike said sarcastically, resting his chin in his hand. "I have to cope with the fact that my battle partner still plays with dolls." He looked at Nyx. "The school bullies still pick on him, too. What happened to the tough colt who took on a pack of Diamond Dogs and rode a dragon into battle?"

    "It's not like he can blast them in the face with the Rainbow Cannon," Nyx said sarcastically. She took a moment to relish the mental image of Diamond Tiara and her cronies hurtling skyward on a rainbow blast wave. She waved Spike's comment off dismissively. "He may be all tough when he's running around with you, but he's all sweet and sensitive and vulnerable with me when we get his armor off. ...What?" she demanded, as the four hoofmaids broke into explosive snickers. Spike facepalmed. "Whaaaat? What did I say?" Nyx looked around, baffled.

    Before any innocence-diminishing information could be imparted, the front door opened. Twilight Sparkle came tottering in. "Good grief," she muttered to noone in particular. "I wasn't this glad to get back home in one piece after the dragons attacked..."

    "Mom!" Nyx hopped to her hooves and galloped over to give her mother a welcome-home nuzzle. Twilight accepted it gratefully. "Was it a busy day in court?"

    "You might say that," Twilight said. "Hundreds of ponies coming to Court to ask for royal intervention in the most ridiculous things... meetings with the military, the Weather Bureau, the press... dozens of petitions on everything from Apples to Zebras. Most of it is just planning on who Celestia, Luna and I will talk to. There's one group petitioning for royal funding for the Crystal Empire Scrying Crystal, another petitioning to have the technology obstructed...Just countless miles of official claptrap..."

    "Oh yeah," Spike said, getting up. "That reminds me. I'm glad you're back, Twi-- I got a bunch of mail for you." He took a deep breath.

    "Huh?" said Nyx. "But you haven't burped a letter all d-"

    BWWUUUUUURRURRRRRRRRRRRRR

    "Good night!" Twilight yelped. "What on--"

    UURRRARRARRARARRRARRARRRRR

    "Oh, that is just--"

    HHHHUUAAAAAAAARRARARRRPPPP!!

    The gout of green flame ceased. The cloud of purple sparkling smoke dispersed, and a good dozen or so scrolls came tumbling down to the floor. Spike gave a sigh of satisfaction and scratched himself.

    "Whoa," Bright Eyes said from the upstairs balcony. "That was awesome, Spike!" Spike grinned and gave the crystal colt a thumbs up.

    "Boys." Nyx rolled her eyes.

    "Spike... what...?" Twilight said, aghast.

    "Princess Celestia made some modifications to my fire-teleport spell," Spike explained. "I can put stuff into a sort of 'hold' box now and pull them back out later. No more accidentally raining stuff on Celestia's head anymore."

    "All these scrolls in one day?" Twilight said in disbelief.

    "The castle mailroom forwards all your stuff to me now," Spike said. Everypony began picking up the scrolls and sorting them out. Nyx picked up one with an undone seal. She read it and began having a fit of giggles.

    "What is it, Nyx?" Twilight asked.

    "It's a note from Miss Cheerilee, but I think you've already got it handled," Nyx said. She passed the scroll over to Twilight. Twilight hefted it in her magic and skimmed it.

    "Why, what's it for?" She asked.

    Nyx giggled louder. "It's a reminder that next Friday is 'take your foal to work day,' " she said.

    Twilight sighed. "That's certainly going to be interesting. Oh, look-- one from your grandparents!" She cracked open the seal on the scroll and scanned down it. "I wonder what's...." Her half smile disappeared as she scanned down the letter, to be replaced with an expression of confusion, then disbelief, then horror. Spike and Nyx felt themselves growing alarmed.

    "What's wrong, Twilight?" Spike asked apprehensively.

    "This... no this can't be right. This can't be true! It can't be!"

    "Mom...?" Nyx said, a little shakily. This was getting frightening.

    Twilight seemed to realize how badly she was frightening her adoptive son and daughter and snapped out of it. "Nothing I can't fix, sweetheart," she said firmly. "Girls, would you mind watching over the children while I go attend to something?"

    "Of course, your Majesty," Cherry Blossom said, as the four bowed. "But where are you going?"

    "I'm going to go speak to my parents," Twilight said, turning around and heading to the door. She threw it open with a wave of her horn and marched out into the palace. "And then I'm going to have a little meeting with Prince Blueblood and his family!"

    1)Two words: heated seat.

    Chapter 7

    Princess Celestia was serene, calm, impassive as she regarded the ponies assembled before her. She showed no emotion other than calm. Her sister, seated next to her, was as aloof as an Egyptian sphinx.

    Their guards, on the other hand, were straining not to bust a gut.

    "So," she said smoothly, arching one regal brow. "Perhaps now that we are in... well, relative private, you can all enlighten me as to what chain of events led to Prince Blueblood's father dangling by his unmentionables from a ballroom chandelier?"

    Both families stood before her. Twilight's father looked hung over; his cigarette holder drooped and his normal bucket hat had been replaced by an ice bag.Blueblood's father was standing... awkwardly, and in an obvious state of discomfort, with an ice pack strapped to another location entirely. Lady Blueblood and Twilight Velvet both looked incensed, and were busy shooting death glares at each other. Twilight Sparkle looked distraught and frazzled, her mane frizzed at the edges and her feathers ungroomed.

    Twilight Sparkle was the first to step forward. She stood before her mentor, head hanging low. Outwardly she was calm, inwardly she was shaking like a bowl of jelly. She'd come down off the adrenaline rush of her anger and now all she could feel was guilty and scared. She hadn't been such a quivering wreck since the Smarty Pants incident. She cleared her throat. "It started when I received a letter from my parents..."

    "YOU SIGNED ME OFF IN A MARRIAGE CONTRACT TO PRINCE BLUEBLOOD ??" Twilight shrieked.

    Night Light cringed away from his daughter's voice. She hadn't mastered the Royal Canterlot Voice yet, but in his current state it mattered little. "Indoor voices, Pumpkin," he groaned. "Daddy forgot his suicide pills." He clutched his pounding head.

    "Oh, I'm so sorry, I wouldn't want you to feel any pain over AUCTIONING MY LIFE AWAY!!" his daughter bellowed. "How did this HAPPEN? Why would you DO this??"

    Night Light lay down on the couch, groaning. He motioned for his wife to take over. "Don't worry, dear," Twilight Velvet said. "I did enough screaming for both of us when I found out."She grimaced. "Your father was at the Pen and Ink club last evening. The other members there decided to throw him a celebratory party-- his daughter getting coronated, after all. Never miss an excuse to overindulge, that lot." She reached over and cuffed Night Light on the back of the head. He moaned. "Anyhow it seems that Lord Blueblood and his son are members there..."

    "They own the club," came Night Light's muffled interjection.

    "They were there in person. And lo and behold, they opened up the bar for the party," Twilight Velvet snorted. "They plied your father with one congratulatory 'toast' after another, and when he was good and smashed, Lord Blueblood pulled out a marriage contract...."

    "What." Celestia's inflection was as flat as a table.

    Twilight nodded. "A marriage contract. That I was to be wedded to Prince Blueblood."

    The pause that followed this was sepulchral. "Continue," Celestia said.

    "He didn't." Twilight Sparkle said in horror.

    "He did," was Velvet's thin-lipped reply.

    "You didn't-- you didn't just let him do this to me..." Twilight pleaded.

    Velvet shook her head. "Of course not. The moment your father woke up this morning he realized what he'd done. He told me and we were around to the Blueblood's estate like a shot, demanding he call this off. He laughed in our faces, said it was some ancestral law that even the Princesses couldn't contradict. That he'd already paid the dowry-- rented the wedding chapel, the caterers, the dressmakers, the whole nine yards-- and if we tried to back out, he'd own the Sparkle estate."

    "It was a really crappy marriage contract," Night Light grunted.

    Twilight's eyes were a little glazed. "No. Oh no. I'm not taking this as an answer." She turned around and headed for the door. "I'm going to find Lord Blueblood and convince him to call this off!"

    "And then what, my little pony?" Celestia prompted. Her voice was smooth as silk and sweet as cream.(1)

    Twilight seemed to gather a little courage from her remembered outrage. "I took some time to write out a quick annulment, then went and tracked Lord Blueblood down." Twilight giggled in a slightly cracked voice. "I hoped I could calmly persuade him to sign it and let this silly thing go..."

    "Not a chance, your Highness," Lord Blueblood smirked. " The contract is legal and binding, by laws older than Celestia."

    "He should know, he dug them out of mothballs and cobwebs himself," Prince Blueblood muttered. The Prince, for a wonder, didn't look smug, proud, or happy with the circ*mstances. He looked in fact rather petulant.

    "Shut up, son," Lord Blueblood said blithely. "It's for your own good, and the good of the crown."

    "The crown can bloody well look after itself!" Twilight yelled. "I have a-- a suitor already. And weren't you the one who was complaining that my 'lineage' was too close to the throne already?"

    Lord Blueblood sniffed, his mustache curling in contempt. "I could care less about your 'suitor,' so long as you keep such tawdry dalliances with commoners discreet-- and your progeny are legitimate," he said. "Once you and my son produce a legitimate heir to the throne, that little nightmareling will be easy enough to shuffle off to the side. Preferably to a nice distant boarding school in Prance or Germane...."

    "I knew it!" a little filly's voice shrieked. Everyone in the room started as Nyx, seemingly out of thin air, came running through the middle of the throne room to stand in front of Celestia. "You can't let these awful ponies make my Mom marry them, you just can't!" She ran over to her mother's side. "I knew this was going to happen, I knew it, I told you," she said to Twilight. She shot a glare over at the Bluebloods. "Just look at them, just like I said, sleazy mustache and everything-- "

    Several of the guards snorted.

    "Nyx, Nyx, calm down," Twilight shushed, giving her a neck hug. "Nothing's going to happen, okay?"

    "How did that get in here?" Prince Blueblood yelped. "Guards! Do your duty!" They did; not a one of them budged.

    "How did you get in here?" Luna said in surprise. She squinted and scanned the room with a sweep of indigo magic. Two forms were silhouetted in purple light; a dragonling and a young colt.

    "Busted," Spike said. "Go ahead and drop it, Bright Eyes." The two appeared, Bright Eyes sighing in relief.

    "Thou'rt most puissant with cloaking spells, e'en for a crystal pony," Luna said in muted admiration. "In especial for one of thy tender years."

    "My fault, Luna," Twilight muttered. "I taught Bright Eyes some tricks to make his natural invisibility more effective. He's apparently been practicing, too." Bright Eyes looked sheepish, a blush spreading under his sparkling cheeks.

    "Ah, twould match his mark," Luna nodded. "That of a pegasus scout-- to be a sentinel, a keen eye that itself goes unseen." She nodded.

    Celestia cleared her throat. "But back to the subject at hand," she said.

    Twilight flinched. "Um, well..."

    "I could care less about your 'suitor,' so long as you keep such tawdry dalliances with commoners discreet-- and your progeny are legitimate,"Lord Blueblood said. "Once you and my son produce a legitimate heir to the throne, that little nightmareling will be easy enough to shuffle off to the side. Preferably to a nice distant boarding school in Prance or Germane. And a proper, rightful ruler-- one of unicorn blood-- will be on the throne."

    Twilight went from wide-eyed dismay to narrow-eyed fury. Her voice got dangerously quiet and focused. "If you think for a second I'm just going to kneel down and lift my tail for your son--"

    Prince Blueblood looked aghast at the crudity. "My word!"

    Lord Blueblood's sneer turned into a snarl. "You'll do just that, you jumped-up, Nightmare-coddling, slum-trawling strumpet, and everything else you're told-- if you know what's good for you and your family!"

    His contemptuous expression vanished like snow in a blast furnace when Princess Twilight's eyes blazed white--

    "...And I-- I sort of blacked out or had a fit or something," Twilight finished. "When I came to, Lord Blueblood was hanging from the chandelier with the brass piping knotted around his.. um..."

    "Royal Lineage?" Luna suggested. Three of the guards fell to their knees, tears rolling down their cheeks.

    Twilight rolled her eyes, cringing, and nodded. "And I had the signature on the annulment. Prince Blueblood was hiding under one of the suits of armor lining the walls squealing something about flaming manes, and, um, Lord Blueblood wasn't talking much-- well he was sort of making little whimpery noises--" she flinched again. "So I um, left. Hurriedly."

    "I can imagine," Celestia said, rolling her eyes and pursing her lips. It took Twilight a moment to realize that the solar princess was struggling not to laugh. "May we see the documents in question?"

    Lord Blueblood levitated the notorious marriage contract to her. Reluctantly, like a frightened child giving up the last corner of her security blanket, Twilight passed over the annulment. Celestia took them both and looked them over. She read quietly for several minutes. When she finished, her response was so unnerving that everypony in the room traded confused looks:

    She started laughing.

    The solar diarch whooped with laughter, her head lolling back, sides heaving."Oh, I couldn't hold it in anymore." She passed the contract over to her sister, who was chortling as well. She took a moment to wipe her eyes on her hock and regarded Lord Blueblood. "You honestly didn't think this was going to fly, did you?" she said. Lord Blueblood looked stunned. "Oh do be an adult, Lord Blueblood," she continued. "Just for starters, we're the rulers of Equestria. We can sign a pardon for a death sentence if we wish, we can certainly sign a pardon for a marriage contract. Besides which, this contract isn't fit to wipe your bum with. Just for starters, This may be old law, old law indeed, and never revoked-- as if my sister and I couldn't have had it repealed, which it shall be, by the way-- current law requires that all parties involved have to be 'of sound mind and of lawful age' and they all have to sign." She plucked the contract out of Luna's grasp and held it up. "A simple scrying on the signature shows that sir Night Light was smashed off his plot. And you don't have Twilight's signature at all.

    "This annulment, on the other hand, is quite airtight," Celestia said with a smile. "Except for the fact that the signature scries as being taken under duress."

    "Nay, sister," Luna giggled. "Twilight did most cunningly cover for that detail." At Celestia's arched eyebrow, Luna gestured to the paper. "The bottom section, written in haste..."

    "Ah yes. The portion which details financial compensation.," Celestia smirked. "In the form of Lord Blueblood 'retaining the possession of his family jewels' in trade for his signature." She grinned at Lord Blueblood. "They're still attached, are they not?" Lord Blueblood sputtered. "Ah. Not that it matters; the marriage contract in question would not hold up for a minute in court. Though a great deal of unpleasantness can be avoided on all sides if Blueblood agrees to accept the annulment. All parties involved can go their separate ways peacefully.

    " I would adjudge that the situation is resolved, then..."

    "Now wait just a minute!" Lord Blueblood stepped towards the throne, groaning a bit and walking a touch spraddle legged. "I refuse!"

    Celestia sat very still. The room got very quiet. "Am I to understand that you are still insisting on pressing the marriage contract?" Celestia said calmly. Very very very calmly.(2)

    "Indeed I am," Lord Blueblood said. "You are not going to wheedle a concession out of me.That annulment was signed under duress. This is an ancient unicorn law, and for all your talk, Highness, I think I stand a good chance of it holding water in court. " His mustache curled up smugly."It is for the good of Equestria! Neither you nor Luna stand any chance of producing heirs, and this new princess--" he gestured scornfully at Twilight-- " has only the promise of either a by-blow with some low-blooded commoner or worse, passing the crown on to her illegitimate, sorcerically fabricated 'daughter!' This, this pathetic state of affairs needs to come to an end, and a rightful unicorn ruler put back in place..."

    Had he been less wrapped up in his own ranting, Lord Blueblood might have noticed the warning signs. Like the fact that the royal guards had stopped shaking with silent laughter and were now slowly backing away from the throne. As it was he only realized his situation too late, when Celestia got to her feet.

    "SILENCE!" she bellowed, slamming a hoof to the tile floor. The boom echoed off the marble walls. Lord Blueblood found himself cowering before a vision of terror. Celestia towered over him, her eyes aflame -- literally--with rage. Her mane and tail had gone from a soft rainbow pastel to blinding red, orange and white, and rose up around her like the blazing corona of the sun. Her coat was brilliant white and her eyes were a furnace. The room around her seemed to dim to black by sheer contrast.

    "Whoa, Twilight times ten thousand," Spike whispered. Bright Eyes made no response, he was too busy being scared completely transparent. Prince Blueblood had run to the back of the room and was trying to hide behind, or perhaps even under, one of the guards. "Oh no no no, not the fiery mane of doom again!" he squealed.

    "Sister," Celestia said, without taking her blazing eyes off of Lord Blueblood. "Tell us, what are the legal penalties for rape?"

    "Rape? Wah--" Lord Blueblood stuttered.

    "Death, I believe," Luna said coolly. She hadn't even arisen from her seat. "With punitive damages paid to the victim. Though you may have lessened that to life at hard labor, since last I checked."

    "And for slavery?" Celestia said.

    "Oh, that is still the death penalty," Luna replied almost cheerfully.

    "Blackmail? Kidnapping? Treason?"

    "Quadruple recompense for the victimized party plus punitive damages, death and oh yes, death, once again," Luna singsonged.

    "Wah? Bwah? WHAT?" Lord Blueblood squealed.

    "You little fool," Celestia thundered. "I was not trying to 'wheedle a concession' out of you. I was giving you a way to escape unscathed. I WAS BEING MERCIFUL!

    "To begin with, you jumped-up dunce," the incandescent Princess said. "That marriage contract was signed by the party of the second part when he was drunk off his plot, and the party of the third part-- the betrothed-- did not sign it at all. Which not only makes it worthless by Equestrian law, but constitutes CONTRACTUAL FRAUD.

    "You threatened Princess Twilight Sparkle's family in an attempt to coerce her into a marriage. That's BLACKMAIL, fool. What makes it worse is that you were coercing her to, as she put it most aptly, 'lift her tail' for your son... which makes it STATUTORY RAPE.

    "You tried to engage in trafficking of another sapient being for your own ends-- that's called SLAVERY.

    "You would have been in desperate trouble if you had tried all of the above with a SCULLERY MAID. But you attempted to do all of the above with a CROWN PRINCESS OF EQUESTRIA. Which in case you haven't guessed, makes it TREASON!

    "Did it ever dawn on you to wonder why such marriage contracts have not been used in Equestria in centuries?" Celestia thundered. "I grew sick of watching greedy, selfish, scheming parents auctioning their own flesh and blood off, selling their sons and daughters over the barrel into loveless, joyless marriages for the sake of some sick little political or financial advantage or other. I passed laws requiring that such marriage contracts be done with the consent... the ADULT consent... of ALL the participants. I even established sanctuary houses... they are now used for the victims of abuse, but their first purpose was a sanctuary for anyone fleeing such a contract. I could not keep parents from bullying their children into agreeing, but I could hinder them from damning their children to a fate they never wanted before they were old enough to even object. In the end, thank the Maker, that little bit I did was more than enough to choke the practice out.

    "DID YOU IMAGINE FOR A SECOND THAT I WOULD REFRAIN FROM BRINGING MY FULL POWER AND WRATH TO BEAR AGAINST ANYONE WHO TRIED SUCH A THING WITH MY MOST BELOVED STUDENT?"

    The flames dimmed somewhat. "It seems you have two choices, Lord Blueblood. Either you accept the annulment, or you can try and take Princess Twilight Sparkle to court-- in which case you will be found guilty of all the crimes I have listed, your estate will be liquidated and given to the Sparkle family as punitive compensation, and you will either spend the rest of your life imprisoned or you will be executed. I seriously doubt that we can execute you four times, but you never know. My judges are rather creative."

    "Annulment is good," Lord Blueblood whimpered.

    "Good." The fiery light faded; the solar diarch's mane dimmed back down to its soft pastel hues. "Now, leave our sight, Lord Blueblood," she said. "And see that thou dost not cross our ire again." The humbled Lord got to his hooves and hobbled from the throne room as rapidly as he could, his dithering wife in tow.

    Celestia stepped across the room to where Prince Blueblood cowered behind a disgruntled guard. "Prince Blueblood--"

    "It wasn't my idea! I never even touched her! I never even LOOKED at her!" the cowardly prince shrieked.

    Celestia rolled her eyes and levitated Blueblood up, magically brushing the dust off him. "We know that, Blueblood," she said patiently. "You're a ponce and a twit, not a monster."

    "Um, thank you?" he squeaked as she set him down on his hooves.

    Celestia sighed. "Did you have to meekly go along with your father's petty foolishness? Try and be your own stallion for once, Blueblood."

    "Easier said than done," the spoiled prince sniffed. "I disobey, he disowns me. Take away my family name from me... there's nothing left."

    "And would that be so terrible? Or at least, more terrible than this?" Luna interjected, indicating the room with a sweep of her hoof. "Tis better to have a 'nothing' that is thine own, than to have everything that is merely lent from another."

    Blueblood ducked down, still cowed, and sidled over to Twilight. "My.. apologies," he mumbled, keenly aware of the eyes of the Diarchs upon him. "This was truly not my idea. I mean, you're not unattractive, but bookish nerds aren't even my type. No offense."

    "Oh why would I ever be offended at that?" Twilight said dryly.

    Blueblood grimaced and was about to reply, most likely by sticking his hoof in his mouth, when the throne room doors were bucked open. Standing framed in the doorway was a dark blue unicorn with an ink black mane and tail and, oddly enough, wearing an ill-fitting suit of gryphon armor that seemed to be singed at the edges. He crashed into the room, drawing a gryphon blade in his magic that had most likely been hanging on someone's living room wall that morning and leveled it at Prince Blueblood. "Step away from her, you CAD!" he roared.(3)He charged. Blueblood screamed like a filly and ran for his life.

    "Ink Spot!" Twilight Sparkle cried. Thinking quickly, she dashed forward to meet Ink Spot halfway, hopefully before the royal guards could skewer him.They crashed together in a quick embrace. Ink Spot pushed his helmet aside and gave her a quick kiss. "Don't worry I'll fix everything, I promise," he said.

    "What--" Twilight said.

    Ink Spot pointed his pot metal sword at the prince, who was cowering and holding up Celestia's tea tray like a shield. "You double dealing vermin! By ancient Unicorn law I challenge you for the hoof of Twilight Sparkle in marriage! Have at thee!"

    The foppish prince, after all the fire and roaring and threats of doom, had just put up with too much. Prince Blueblood dropped the tray. "You win!" he shrieked. He ran and jumped through the nearest stain glass window with a crash.

    Ink Spot gaped. "Well. Um. That was easy."

    Luna and Celestia gasped in alarm. A couple of the guards ran to the window. "It's all right, your Highnesses," the first one said. "He caught one of the flagpoles."

    "Too bad he didn't catch it between his front hooves," the second one muttered. Every male in the room winced. Luna leaned out the window.

    "Art thou all right, nephew?"

    "Can I get back to you on that, auntie?" came the faint, squeaky reply.

    Luna grimaced. "Go help him down," she told two of the pegasus guards. "...gently." They dove out the window to rescue their scion and cart him to the infirmary.

    A very intimate reunion was taking place across the room. Ink Spot was explaining his miraculous arrival between kisses and nuzzles. "I have a friend who's a member of the Pen and Ink club; he saw Lord Blueblood conning your father into signing that marriage contract and sent me word via telegram. I was out the door the moment I heard..."

    "Inky," Twilight said, nuzzling in close. "How on earth did you get back so quickly--"

    "Well it seems my company's Pony Express project works," he said with a grin. "We set up a chain of high speed pegasi and teleporting unicorns, clear across Equestria and into the gryphon lands. I shipped myself as an express package from the Gryphon capital to Canterlot." He brushed awkwardly at the singed spots on his armor. "Rough trip, but it worked."

    "And the armor--" Twilight said.

    Ink Spot's grin widened. "Gryphons are kind of big on honor and fighting for one's mate," he said. "The postmaster in the Gryphon kingdom yanked this junk off the wall of his office and gave it to me when he heard why I had to get back so fast."

    Twilight chuckled and nuzzled his neck. She suddenly jerked her head back and looked at him. "Wait. Marriage? Did you really mean--"

    Ink Spot nodded. "Yes."

    For a brief awful instant, Twilight felt all her lifelong insecurities swirl in around her like a shroud. "Really? Me?.... this is so sudden..." Her next sentence was barely a whisper."Are you sure?"

    "Enough to let a bunch of crazy unicorns shot-put me across two continents," he said. "I'll, I'll admit it. I got scared. I got scared when I learned how close you were to Celestia and Luna. Scared when you became an alicorn. Scared that-- that I wasn't anywhere near good enough for you.

    "But when I heard about you being betrothed, I realized that none of that scared me half as much as the thought of losing you." He dropped to one knee; his pot-metal armor crashed. "Twilight Sparkle," He levitated a box out from under his armor. "Will you--"

    "Now hold on, there," Night Light said. The growl in his voice belied the grin. "Most young colts know enough to ask for the father's blessing--" His ice pack was lifted up, and there was a resounding KLOK as his wife's pale lavender hoof met the back of his head. "--which is of course freely given," He said without missing a beat or dropping his grin. "Yes, dear, shutting up now dear. Ow." The ice pack was lowered and gently patted back in place.

    Ink Spot turned back to his special somepony. "I know it isn't much of a ring," he said with regret, opening the box. "I sort of had to do things on the run-- literally-- but..."

    Twilight looked in the box. Inside was a crude diamond horn-ring. It looked as though Ink Spot had taken a gold bit and drilled it out from the center. An uncut diamond(4) was attached with gold wire, welded into place. "It's beautiful," she said, lifting it out of the box and settling it on her horn. Tears were in her eyes.

    "S-so that means..."

    "YES!" Twilight threw herself into his arms.

    Celestia looked over and noticed Nyx. The black filly was standing there, practically vibrating in place. She looked like she was about to explode. Celestia chuckled and lowered her head to the filly's ear. "Go ahead," she said.

    "EEEEEEEEE! Omigoshomigoshomigoshomigosh!!" Nyx began hopping around the room like Pinkie Pie on a triple espresso.

    "You do realize that this is so going in my next novel," Twilight Velvet said to her daughter with a sly grin.

    "Ack! Mom!"

    "Now that's how to make an entrance, dude," Spike muttered to Bright Eyes.

    Bright Eyes nodded. The two brohoofed. Bright Eyes grinned suddenly. "Oh wow, poor Roller Reel," he said. "When he hears he missed filming this, he's going to blow a fuse!"

    1)That particular tone of voice her personal staff referred to as "DefCon 3."

    2)And now we are at DefCon 2.

    3)For a given value of "roar."

    4)He punched out a diamond dog in the badlands. Long story.

    Chapter 8

    The engagement of Sir Ink Spot and Princess Twilight Sparkle was announced the very next day. It was a story right out of a fairy tale(1): a humble bookkeeper racing against time across the world to save his beloved from an unwanted betrothal.

    The nobility, of course, freaked.

    An immortal Princess, marrying a commoner? Not merely a commoner, but a drudge laborer(2) for some book factory or other? At least he was a unicorn, darling-- imagine if he was a pegasus or, Maker forbid, an Earth Pony!-- But still, how appalling--

    Twilight had been hearing this sort of thing muttered quietly under ponies' breaths, and not so quietly, for days. So it was just really the duch*ess of Canterbury's bad luck to be within earshot when the princess and her mother were walking past in the castle hallway.

    Twilight Velvet and Night Light had all but moved into the royal quarters. The moment the engagement had been announced, Velvet had gotten together with her daughter and her daughter's staff. They'd spent the past few days with their heads together, giddy as fillies, plotting out the wedding details.(3) But as they were walking down the hallway that day they happened to pass the redoubtable duch*ess and two of her hangers-on, and it was impossible not to hear what the three were whispering about. Almost against their wills, They slowed to a halt and stood there, eavesdropping on the little royal tete-a-tete.

    "...Turned down the Blueblood family for this... Ink Spot character! I don't know what to think! Is it really true?" One of them said.

    "Oh, absolutely," the second one tittered. "They tried to marry her off properly-- she threw a tantrum. Flung the betrothed out a window and left his father hanging by his neck from a chandelier!"

    "What is the world coming to?" the duch*ess tut-tutted. "First Nightmare Moon, and now this... unstable filly, up on a throne."

    "The marriage is set for exactly one year from now."

    "The reason for that is obvious," the duch*ess sniffed.

    "Do tell?"

    "Well the bookish little thing has been slumming in Ponyville for the past two or three years," the duch*ess said with a raised eyebrow. "They have to make sure and account for any.... indiscretions she might have gotten up to amongst the commoners."

    "Indiscretions?" her two gossip-mates pricked their ears up.

    The duch*ess cleared her throat and leaned in. "Did you say the wedding's in one year... or did you mean in just over eleven months?"

    The two sycophants "ooooh"ed in understanding. "You mean they think she's already...?" one said, hiding her scandalized grin behind a feather fan.

    "I mean they think that she's gone so, ahem rustic that they have to make sure she isn't," the duch*ess clarified. She gave an officious sniff. "And if she is, well-- I wonder what poor little foundling she'll have 'adopted' between now and then?"

    Velvet felt her daughter stiffen, then heard her clear her throat. The three gossips turned about in surprise; they had obviously not noticed the very Princess they were insulting coming down the hallway towards them. They went from a twirl of surprise to a bow of obsequiousness with grace that bespoke years of practice. Velvet wondered cynically how often Celestia had padded silently up behind them during an indiscreet round of lip-flapping to engender that sort of reflex. "Your Highness," the three said reverently, as if they hadn't just been calling Twilight a gutter wench a moment before.

    "Ladies. duch*ess." Twilight's response was as smooth and cool as a glass of iced tea. Velvet wasn't fooled. It took a mother's eye, but Velvet could see the pain at the hurtful words behind her daughters eyes. She gave the three nobleponies a gleaming smile. One could almost hear the tzing! as Twilight's mother pulled the metaphorical razor out of her mental purse.

    "duch*ess Canterbury, Lady Wintergreen, Lady Pumpkin Patch!" she said. "What an unexpected pleasure. So nice to see you out and about. Especially you, duch*ess, it's always important to stay active at our age, don't you think?"

    duch*ess Canterbury looked a touch miffed; it was an open secret(4) that the duch*ess refused to acknowledge her actual age and had even gone so far as to have any record of it altered.(5) "...Quite," she managed to say.

    "Oh, and how is your son doing? Is he feeling well?"

    "My son?" The duch*ess blinked at the non sequitor.

    "My, yes. After all, despite his age he was born six months premature," Velvet said. Her smile was all teeth. "That can cause a few lingering problems, I suspect. And the first pegasus in a 300 year old family of unicorns! Quite the surprise he was, I'm sure."

    The duch*ess didn't even blink. "Well, these things do tend to skip a generation or two..." her face would have been the pride of the professional poker circuit.

    "Or three, or ten, or twenty, but who's counting?" Velvet said breezily. "Oh, don't look like that, dear," she pouted, "I'm not insinuating anything-- oh, excuse me--" She paused to pluck out a handkerchief and gave an explosive sneeze that sounded rather like PEGASUSGROUNDSKEEPER!-- "Do excuse me, it must be the pollen in the air..."

    "Mother--" the mortified Princess hissed.

    "Oh, I'm quite all right dear," Velvet said without missing a beat. "But he's a nice strapping lad. At least he didn't inherit that... jaw... thing like his Hapsburg cousins did."

    "Jaw... thing?" Pumpkin Patch asked.

    "Oh, you're going to be marrying into that line of the Canterbury family, aren't you, Pumpkin dear? Betrothed, I'd forgotten about that." Velvet said.

    "His name is Chinly Habsburg," the filly said uncertainly. "We... haven't met yet. What about his jaw?"

    "Oh surely you know." Velvet made a gesture with her hoof, indicating an enormous lower jaw. "You know, that, ah, facial quirk where the lower jaw sticks out like so?"

    Wintergreen grimaced. "Isn't that the defect that crops up when you..."

    "When you marry first cousins, yes," Velvet said offhoofedly. "But well, the Patch family stallions seem to um, have rather understated chins so I'm sure your foals will all balance out." Pumpkin Patch said nothing but the growing horror on her face spoke volumes. "I'm sure he has a nice personality though. If you can ignore the slurred speech. And the unibrow. WEll, I'm sure his comfortably wealthy style will make up for any inconveniences(6)"

    "Mo-ther!" Twilight Sparkle hissed, stamping her hoof.

    Velvet never took her eyes off the three gossips. "Just think, dear," Velvet said, turning to Lady Wintergreen, the youngest of the three. "You're so fortunate to be of noble lineage." She rolled her eyes back. "Imagine if you'd been born a commoner! You'd have to actually go out and find somepony you were emotionally compatible with, and be courted and dated and asked for your hoof in marriage. Why, you'd have to go out and learn a trade and make a living, be part of a community-- and you might even get it in your head to never marry at all!

    "No, none of that nonsense for you. Your parents will pick out a perfectly suitable family name and bank account to trade y-- ah, betroth you." She simpered and patted a hoof to her mouth. "Do forgive that slip; I wouldn't want you to think your parents have anything but your best personal interests at heart when they pick a husband. I mean," she darted meaningful glances at the duch*ess, "It's not like they'll marry you off to some stallion three times your age, or a drunken boor, or a loutish cretin who just happens to have a politically advantageous pedigree. I mean you're their daughter.

    "Right?"

    The Lady Wintergreen looked ill. Her family was known in Canterlot circles to be ruthlessly ambitious; one could see the visions flashing behind her eyes of just what sorts of marital sacrificial pyre her parents would throw her to, given half a chance.

    Twilight had enough. With a barely smothered "ugh" of frustration she turned and strode off down the hall. Velvet waited until her daughter was out of earshot and then addressed the threesome under her breath. The toothy smile never left her face. "Now listen up you jumped up tramps, that isn't just your Princess and it isn't just some other female obstacle in your petty little power games, that is my daughter. I once put the beatdown on a manticore who went after her baby carriage, some bedraggled old bat and her two guttersnipe sidekicks wouldn't even make me break my stride.

    "She is about to marry the stallion she loves. If I find out you three hags have hurt her or ruined her special day by spreading your nasty, petty little gossip about her and him, you won't have to worry about what Celestia will do to you because the last thing you will see in this world will be me taking a bite out of your still-beating hearts." She started to walk away, and turned back.

    "Oh, and don't think I won't do it. My grandson is a dragon. I know how to get rid of the bodies." With that, she trotted off serenely after her daughter, leaving the three noblewomen standing amidst the tattered shreds of their flayed egos, in a state somewhere between shock, humiliation and outright mortal fear.

    1)Or, more truthfully, a really good saddle-ripper(*) romance novel.

    (*)They would have been called bodice-rippers, if ponies actually had bodices to rip.

    2)To some unicorns, anything that earned a salary was drudge labor.

    3)While Night Light was busy doing his fatherly duty by cheerfully terrorizing the groom.

    4)As plain as the triple layers of pancake makeup on her face.

    5)If you went by the age she would admit to, her eldest son was two years older than she was.

    6)Everyone present mentally adding the typical fortune-cookie suffixes to her words.

    Chapter 9

    Velvet fell in step beside her daughter. Twilight refused to look at her. "Thank you so much, Mother," she said through clenched teeth. "Those three were just petty gossips before. Now they've got a grudge to hold. Dealing with them is going to be miserable!"

    "As if it wasn't before?" Velvet said dryly. "I really think you're worrying too much, dear. They've less spine and brains among them than a trio of flatworms."

    "Mother--" Twilight bit off her reply and sighed. "You don't understand, Mother," she said wearily. "While you get to go home again and forget all about those three, I have to stay here and deal with them . I wish you'd think of that before you do things that I'll have to live with long after you've left."

    Velvet stopped, chagrined. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," she said, her ears folding down. "Those nasty harpies were making fun of my baby girl. I couldn't just stand by and say nothing." She nuzzled her daughter. "And don't think for a minute that I'd go back home and forget all about my little filly and her troubles."She gave a smirk. "Trust me, this will work to your advantage."

    "You're a novelist, Mother," Twilight said, amused in spite of herself. "I'm a Princess. I think notoriety works a little different for you than it does for me."

    "Exactly." Velvet preened a bit. " Now those three gossips will be chattering about is how scandalous my behavior is. They won't even think about talking about you. You be all aloof and princessly... I'll wade into the mud pit myself instead."

    "Yeahhhh, that's a possibility," Twilight said in amused skepticism. "I don't think you're going to be an effective distraction from what I did to Lord Blueblood." Her mouth set in a grim line. "Besides, half the nobility have it in for me already."

    "Ah well then dear," Velvet said. "If you're going to be the scandalous one no matter what you do, why let it bother you? Do as you please and let them say what they will. You might as well have fun with it."

    Twilight sighed. "Is that what Dad is up to? Out raising a rumpus in town? You'd think he'd be laying low after that little incident with the marriage contract."

    Velvet chuckled. "Oh no, dear. He's just out bonding with your fiancee'."

    "Mom...." Twilight said on an ascending note.

    "Oh stay calm, dear; have a little faith in your father," Velvet chuckled. "You'll get your fiancee' back in one piece."

    Night Light plunked his rump down at their table and took a long pull on his root beer float. "Ahhh," he sighed in satisfaction. " Root beer floats. Nothin' beats it. How about you, lad?"

    Ink Spot toyed with his drink nervously. "More a cherry phosphate kind of stallion, myself," he said, indicating his drink.

    "Good, good," Night Light said, beaming around his cigarette holder. "If you're going to have a vice, make it something innocuous."

    Ink Spot looked at him skeptically. "Um, didn't that whole, ah, incident with the Bluebloods start with--"

    Night Light grimaced. "It started with me chucking back a cider. Then a hard cider, 'just this once.' Then a little Appletini. Then a straight up martini. Then working my way around the fruits and vegetable aisle to balance things out--"

    "Fruits and vegetables?"

    "Corn moonshine, plum brandy, rye whiskey, potato vodka...." the grimace doubled. "And this nice fellow who I'd never met before plying me with still more congratulatory drinks as he shoved an inkwell and a quill into my hoof... I swear to you, boy, I puked so hard I saw my back hoof pop out of my mouth. I think I threw up my will to live.

    "Then my wife found out what happened and the real pain started. No, that's one experiment I shall not repeat ever again. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't chew, don't date girls that do."

    "You've got a cigarette holder in your mouth," Ink Spot pointed out.

    Night Light grinned. "So? I got shoes on my hooves, don't mean I'm walkin'." Ink Spot couldn't help it; he glanced down at Night Light's clearly unshod hooves. "Oh come on, young fella, it's a turn of phrase !" Night Light said. "I'm not so daft as to actually let somepony nail a chunk of iron to my body like some iron age barbarian..."

    Ink Spot shook his head. Talking with Twilight's father was like trying to ice skate on a moving train. "So you said you wanted to have... a little chat," Ink Spot said. He winced inwardly; he was genre-savvy enough to guess what was coming next.

    "Ah yes, of course," the father of the bride said. "Let's see here." He levitated a scroll from the saddlebag on the floor next to him and unrolled it. "Okay... Insert Name of prospective here, check. Confirm engagement to offspring, check. Assert parental affection for daughter, assert best wishes, generic vague threat against fiancee's person,reassert hopes for future, inquire about intentions for grandchildren, second more specific violent threat....."

    Ink Spot stared. "What, are you actually going down a... yes, you are actually going down a checklist," he deadpanned when Night Light turned the paper around for him to see.

    "Her mother made it," Night Light said. "Where do you think Twilight got it from? Look, son," he said. "I'm going to tell you the same thing my wife's father told me. I'm not going to make stupid threats about what I'll do if you break her heart blah de blah. I respect you too much for that. If I didn't respect you, you wouldn't have got within fifty miles of my little girl in the first place.

    "Besides which, ponies make mistakes, especially with the ones they love. All I'll do is ask that you try your hardest to love her, and that when you do make a mistake-- and you will-- that you keep on trying."

    "I will, sir," Ink Spot said, relieved. "Um, am I going to go through this with the rest of the family?"

    "Nah. Why do you think they had me be the one to read the list? No sense in repeating one another, after all."Night Light crumpled the list up and tossed it over his shoulder. "The real reason I wanted to have this little sit down with you is to prepare you."

    "Prepare me?" Ink Spot said. He could feel his relief starting to carefully backtrack.

    Night Light took a long pull on his root beer float and looked Ink Spot in the eye. "My boy," he said sympathetically, placing a hoof on Ink Spot's shoulder. "A year from now, you're going to be marrying into the Sparkle clan. You're going to be marrying a Sparkle mare. And you may or may not have noticed, the Sparkle mares, lovely and loving as they may be, do have certain quirks for which a prospective spouse should be prepared."

    "Um, I've been there for one or two, I think," Ink Spot said. "The, ah, Miss Smartypants incident." He took a nervous sip of his cherry phosphate, looking embarrassed. "She told me about the, ah, Smarty Pants incident. She was late on a friendship report, got so strung out that she decided to make a friendship problem to fix and report, and... well, the next thing you know there's a riot going right through the middle of town..."

    "Ah yes," Night Light mused. "The old Death Spiral. That's what Spike calls it anyway. Twilight and her mother are a lot alike; they can handle just about any real crisis you throw at them... I'll tell you a story about Velvet and a manticore someday... but put a minor hitch in a minor problem and they'll pull into a flat spin that would make a Wonderbolt weep with envy."

    "I know," Ink Spot said glumly. "The therapist says it's social anxiety."

    "Pardon?" Despite it being fairly dark inside the sundae shop, Night Light was still wearing his aviator sunglasses. He shot Ink Spot a look over the tops of the lenses.

    "Twilight and I are taking therapy together for Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder," Ink Spot said. "We just put out a new psychology and psychiatry textbook series and I recognized the symptoms(1) while I was doing an editorial spot-check. I showed her the textbook and she recognized the symptoms. She was sort of in denial, until she saw that being in denial was one of the symptoms..." Ink Spot shrugged.

    "Spot on, showing her the textbook," Night Light muttered. "Darling girl, but she'd follow a resource volume right off a cliff. But both of you?"

    Ink Spot shrugged. "I'm a bit OCPD myself," he admitted. "For me, the triggers are work-related... stuff at the office sets me off. For Twilight it's social interactions, especially with peers she wants to impress."

    "And how's that working out for you?"

    "Well, we've made progress... I've stopped going into yelling fits at my interns for putting files on the right side of my desk instead of the left, and Twilight has cut back to one checklist a day. She double checks it twice, but-- little foal steps, I guess."

    Night Light regarded his future son-in-law for several seconds. Two thoughts went through his mind:

    Ye gods, they're the perfect couple.

    Followed quickly byWould it be a sign of weakness to ask him for this counselor's name and address?

    "Ah well then. Moving on...."

    1)The symptoms of OCPD (this is real, folks)

    a:preoccupation with remembering and paying attention to minute details and facts

    b:following rules and regulations

    c:compulsion to make lists and schedules

    d: rigidity/inflexibility of beliefs

    e: perfectionism that interferes with task-completion.

    f. denial-- insistence that they are not the ones with the problem; that if everyone else would just adhere to their rules everything would be fine.

    Chapter 10

    It had been some time since the rebuilding of the Castle of the Moon. Nevertheless, change was slow to come; Although each one had their own palace now, Luna and Celestia agreed that for Twilight's first few years as a princess, Twilight should sit court at Canterlot.Canterlot had been the traditional seat of government for a millenium and it was best to start with the familiar.

    This was what they said, of course. Twilight had the feeling that it was more to let Celestia chaperone her in case she decided to string up more nobles and officials by various bits of their anatomy.(*) Or very depressingly, maybe to protect her from the rather nontrivial percentage of ponies with some sort of complaint about Twilight Sparkle, Twilight Sparkle's coronation, Twilight Sparkle's public behavior, Twilight Sparkle's betrothal, Twilight Sparkle's daughter... Celestia and Luna snuffed out those complaints quickly enough (Celestia with a mere word or two; Luna perhaps a bit more forcefully), but still they came. Endlessly. Stuffed shirts and noses high and high dudgeon in hoof.

    Which brought things back to "protecting the ponies from the princess" again. There was surely going to be at least one strangled nobleman's corpse at the foot of the dais before the day was out.

    "...And her defamation of our city's most vital cash crop has resulted in amassive downturn in the market price from which we may never recover!" Mayor Ramroot thundered, pointing an accusing hoof at Twilight.

    "All I did was tell the ambassador that I don't like rutabagas!" Twilight yelped in exasperation. "It was a state dinner! He was passing me the plate! I can't eat them, they give me GAS!"

    Explosive snickering came from the seat next to hers. Twilight ignored it. Celestia raised her hoof for silence. "Mayor Ramroot, I seriously doubt that the mere word of a princess is enough to change pony's opinions of a vegetable," she said. "I suggest you look elsewhere for reasons for the downturn in rutabaga sales." Her expression puckered a bit. "Like, perhaps, the surplus of other root vegetables currently flooding the market-- and the drop in quality of your produce over the past several seasons." The mayor harrumphed, but Celestia pressed on. "And if a momentary change in ponies' appetite can sway your city's welfare so greatly, maybe you should talk to the farmers about diversifying their crops. Even the Apples plant a little corn on the side." Mayor Ramroot started to say something, but Celestia cut him off. "That will be all, Mayor Ramroot."

    The mayor huffed and grumbled a bit, but bowed curtly and left.Twilight wilted a little as he strode out of the throne room. "I'm sorry, Celestia," she said weakly.

    Celestia sighed and rolled her eyes. "It's inevitable, Twilight. They are simply looking for a lightning rod to ground out their frustrations. You are newest, and therefore you are the easiest mark. Every word out of your mouth will be scrutinized, distorted, exaggerated, and exploited."

    "And when will that stop?" Twilight lamented.

    "I wouldn't know," Celestia muttered, not taking her eyes off the rest of the room. "I'm still waiting."

    Twilight's spirit sunk even lower. This was miserable. She had at least expected to be doing something useful as one of the rulers of Equestria. But nearly every morning since her coronation had been spent sitting in this very spot, listening to ponies. Countless ponies, ponies complaining about trivialities, ponies arguing over trifles, ponies wheedling for Celestia to alter the laws in their favor (and when that failed, wheedling Twilight out of court to persuade the princess for them), ponies laying accusations against one another or making outlandish demands... What was the point of this?

    Twilight felt a tiny hoof on her foreleg. "Don't worry, Mom," Nyx whispered. "They're all a bunch of plotheads anyway."

    Twilight snifled a snicker. "Language, young filly," she said.

    "Sorry," came the meek reply.

    Nyx was, indeed, sitting in "Dawn Court" with Celestia and her mother. It was the simplest solution Twilight could find to 'bring your filly to work day.' They had the staff bring in a small loveseat and set it next to Twilight's, on the dais just below Celestia's throne. With a small table, a stack of papers, and a box of crayons to stave off boredom, she had been prepped to see her through the first part of her mother's day.

    Had anypony taken closer note of what Nyx was doodling on those papers, they would have been surprised and amused to find out just how much attention the little filly was paying to the proceedings. She was far from bored; she found the ponies and their problems fascinating. Rather than just drawing whatever popped into her head, Nyx had undertaken to record the events-- or at least commemorate them, in the form of scribbled notes and crude drawings of the ponies who came to supplicate the princesses.Though perhaps the various nobles might not have been flattered by her juvenile renderings of their noble personages.(1)

    Spike was seated on Mom's other side, quills and ink at the ready, prepped to send off missives anywhere the new princess decreed. Twilight had taken the precaution of putting a bowl of gemstones by his seat for him to munch on; having Spike's stomach growl in the middle of Court could be distracting. "So who's next?" he said, tossing an emerald in his mouth like a bit of popcorn.

    "Presenting hizzoner, Governor Sky High of Cloudsdale," the herald announced "To present a petition to the throne to protest the Equestria Games Council." Up the red carpet came a sky-blue pegasus stallion. He had a cutie mark of a cloud with an upward-pointing arrow and a mane and tail the color of burnished gold. His stormcloud-grey suit hung neatly creased on his muscular frame. He looked, Nyx thought, rather like a sky-colored Filthy Rich. He was flanked by two pegasi in identical business suits, a gold-on-orange mare and a red-on-white stallion. They had briefcases(2) and pinc-nez glasses and stern, determined expressions.

    The three halted before the throne and did a sweep-winged bow to Celestia, and after a moment's hesitation, to Twilight as well. "Good day, your highnesses," Mayor Sky High said.

    "Hello," Nyx blurted out on reflex. She hiccuped and clapped her hoof to her mouth.

    The gold-on-blue pegasus and his assistants stared at her. "What..." Sky High blinked. "Is that really--"

    "My daughter, yes," Twilight said hastily. She was getting rather tired of the hostile stares directed at Nyx. She made a motion that Nyx knew meant for her to sit back and be still.

    Nyx flushed a bit in embarrassment and hunched down in her chair, trying to look as small as possible.

    Mayor Sky High stared at the former Nightmare Moon a moment, but said nothing. He turned his attention back to the rulers of the land and cleared his throat. "As representatives of the city of Cloudsdale, we wish to register a complaint against the Board of Inspectors for the Equestria Games, and a petition from the ponies of Cloudsdale for a reevaluation by a new, impartial inspector for the Games this coming year." The red-maned stallion stepped forward and presented Celestia with an enormous scroll. When Celestia lifted it up and let it unroll, it unspooled and rolled clear down the steps of the dais. From where she was sitting, Nyx could see it was covered with signatures.

    "As I see," Celestia said, passing the scroll over to Twilight so the new princess could get a look. "Twilight, if you would...?"

    Twilight, relieved to have at least one issue that didn't directly relate to her coronation, quickly grasped it. She looked over the first foot or so of the petition, biting her lip thoughtfully. "If I understand the language of this correctly, Cloudsdale is complaining that the Equestria Games board is unfairly biased on the grounds that it has passed over Cloudsdale as host for the games."

    "For the past five games in a row," Sky High emphasized. "This has been a rather unsubtle blow against Cloudsdale prestige. To say nothing of the lost opportunity for commerce and industry. Cloudsdale is the single largest pegasus city in Equestria..."

    "Which is just the problem, Mayor Sky High," Twilight interrupted. "A pegasus city. One made of clouds. Which only pegasi and other beings with natural cloudwalking can even visit! How do you propose to provide facilities for the other two thirds of the population of Equestria? Or for any of the zebras, donkeys, buffalo, or other races that have no flight or weather magic, contestants and guests alike?"

    Sky High grimaced. "This is unfortunately true," he said. His stern expression softened to a pleading one. "But that is just the point. Cloudsdale doesn't have the infrastructure or the industry... but we want it, desperately. We need it. With the opening of the Crystal Empire, and the discovery of Earth Pony magic, the weather-magic slice of the pie has gotten much smaller. We want to grow beyond depending on weather and clouds and Wonderbolt airshows.The Games would attract investors who could put much-needed revenue into our city, tourism, trade, and more--- the stuff we need to even start building a broader infrastructure. Surely there is some compromise that could be reached. We deserve a fair chance. Are we a community of Equestria or are we not?"

    Twilight chewed her lip. This was it; her first real test as a ruler of Equestria. It was true that Cloudsdale was underrepresented in the Games. For a millennia-old city of Equestria this was inexcusable. But it was also true that they didn't have any real way to host the games, not with buildings and roads that were only usable by ponies with wings. There had to be a workaround."What about cloudwalking spells? "

    One of Sky High's assistants, the stallion with the red mane, spoke up. "We actually looked into that. There are permanent cloudwalking spells. But the cost alone would still be prohibitive."

    Twilight mulled it over. "And you still have all the equipment and the merchandise and such to consider." She grimaced.

    Nyx got a thoughtful look on her face. She reached over and patted her mother on the shoulder. "Mom...?"

    "Not now, dear. Do you have any other proposals, Mayor?"

    "We managed to do just fine the last time we hosted the games, back in ought-seven," Sky High said.

    Twilight frowned as she tried to recall. "If I recall, that year you hosted the games-- on open fields down on the ground below the city," she said. "Not only did Cloudsdale end up spending itself into near bankruptcy just on renting the land space, but most of the work and infrastructure ended up falling on the backs of the earth pony communities in the surrounding area.... who were not happy to be stuck doing all the grunt-work for 'Cloudsdale's' stint at the games. And since the Cloudsdale games weren't even really IN Cloudsdale, none of your local businesses really benefitted."

    Sky High grimaced again. "Perhaps if we moved to a nearby mountaintop?"

    "That would be good for the downhill competition," the assistant mare said.

    "But not so good for much else," the stallion on his other side retorted. "The effort needed to make level platforms for the other games..."

    "But Mom--" Nyx said, poking her mother again.

    "Not now, Nyx!"

    Twilight turned her attention back to the mayor of Cloudsdale. "I'm sorry, but Cloudsdale just doesn't have anything to support the games. Figuratively or literally. If the city council can come up with a plan to fix this, then we would be happy to have the Board reevaluate the city for the next Equestria games. But until then-- their decision has to stand. I am sorry..."

    Sky High turned a pleading eye to Celestia, who merely shook her head. "I hold by Twilight's decision," she said.

    Disappointment etched Sky High's face. "We apologize for wasting your time," he said, clearly unhappy. "Thank you, your Highnesses." He gave a formal bow, turned and left, his head low.

    Once again Nyx tried to get her mother's attention. "Mom, but what if..."

    "Nyx!" Twilight said sharply. Nyx winced back. Twilight bit back a sigh of impatience and looked at her daughter. "Please, Nyx, if you have a question, just-- hold onto it and ask me later. Okay?"

    Nyx ducked down, miffed, and looked away. Pouting, she focused her attention back on her stack of drawing paper and picked up a crayon.

    "You did the best you could, Twilight," Celestia said quietly. "This has been an issue with Cloudsdale for some time; it was unlikely that a simple solution was going to present itself."

    "Hopefully I can do better for the next ponies," Twilight whispered back. "Who is next?"

    "Announcing Mister Knick Knack of Cloudsdale, of Knick Knack's novelties and Souvenirs, presenting a petition of grievance against the Equestria Games Board of Directors." In strode a lime green pegasus with a cart full of Cloudsdale souvenirs marked with the Equestria Games logo and a hardened scowl across his face.

    Twilight groaned and rubbed her temples with her hooves.

    Twilight, Spike and Nyx came staggering back to their quarters just as the sun went down. The Quartet were waiting at the door for them; they helped Twilight out of her royal finery, and hustled Nyx and Spike off to bed. The two went meekly; To Twilight it seemed as if Nyx was rather subdued.

    "We set out a little, ah, refreshment for you on the north balcony, your Highness," Snowcap said. "We'll leave you to it." With that the foursome bowed and vanished in the manner of discreet house staff everywhere. Curious, Twilight tapped her way up to the second floor and out onto the veranda overlooking the city.

    Waiting there for her was a candle-lit table for two, laden with a selection of sliced fruits and other delectables, and tall fluted glasses of sparkling cider. Soft music was playing on a victrola someplace, and the stars were coming outas a cool night breeze blew in. Her chair was out, ready and inviting, and seated on the other side of the table was a certain dark blue, black maned stallion she'd been thinking of all day. "Hi," Ink Spot said with a half grin. "Your hoofmaids set this up..."

    Twilight giggled. "Not subtle, are they?"

    He looked around. "Well at least I managed to talk them out of the blindfolded violinist," Ink Spot quipped.

    Twilight chuckled and gave him a lingering kiss. "Oh it is so good to see you," she said fervently before slipping into her chair and attacking the fruit platter.

    "Hard day?" Ink Spot said sympathetically.

    "Oh, you have no idea..." Twilight rolled her eyes. "And you?"

    Ink Spot grunted. "Luna sicced her major domos on me," he said.

    "Pomp and Circ*mstance? Really?" Twilight recalled the stuffy, officious twins (one a pegasus, one a unicorn, otherwise perfectly alike right down to their cutie marks) who served the night princess.

    "They spent the day marching me up and down and lecturing me on courtly protocol and etiquette," Ink Spot said. "Seeing as I'm to be the consort of a Princess, I need proper training to keep me from messing the carpet. They had me rehearsing everything from bowing and scraping to biscuits and tea. If I drank one more cup of tea I was going to need a bladder transplant."

    Twilight snerked.

    The two ate, drank and talked, commiserating over their mutual days by the light of the evening sky. Once they had slaked their hunger and thirst, they drifted back indoors to snuggle in a love seat in front of the roaring fireplace and a good book (Legends and Folk Tales: the Lore of Equestria. Jumbo anthology.) Twilight snuggled halfway into Ink Spot's lap and regarded the illustrations with her lips pursed. "I wonder how many of these guys the girls and I are going to end up having to deal with," she said sourly. "The princesses seem to have a habit of leaving Sealed Evil in a Can all over the place."

    "Hopefully not this guy," Ink Spot quipped, pointing at an illustration of Tirek. "He and Nyx would probably squabble all the time."

    Twilight stared up at him. "What are you--" It took her a second to get the joke. She scowled at his grinning face and gave him a hard poke in the ribs. "I do not go around adopting reformed Dark Villains willy-nilly," she said.

    "Ow." Ink Spot chuckled. "Well, between you and Nyx, and the way Pinkie Pie has Discord practically walking around on a leash...(3)"

    Twilight rolled her eyes and was about to respond when there was a flash of purple-green fire overhead. A clumsily-made scroll dropped out of the air, bounced off her nose and landed in her lap. Twilight picked it up, looked at the name written in crayon and groaned. "Oh no. I did it to her again."

    "What is it?" Ink Spot asked.

    Twilight smiled a little guiltily. "It's from Nyx." She sighed. "This was supposed to be 'take your filly to work' day. But I got so wrapped up in things... she spent the whole day trying to get my attention and I kept putting her off. So she had to write a letter to me to tell me something. Again." Her ears folded down. "She must have written this and had Spike use that... delayed delivery thingy of his to send it to me." She sighed. "How am I going to make that up to her?"

    "Well, I'd start by reading what she wrote. It must have been important to her to write it down," Ink Spot said wisely.

    "When you're right, you're right," Twilight said, giving him a peck on the nose. She unrolled the scroll and started reading out loud. "Dear Mom,

    "What if instead of casting the cloudwalking spell on the ponies, you cast it on the clouds?"

    Twilight sat stone still, staring unblinking into the middle distance. After a minute Ink Spot started getting worried. "Honey?" he said cautiously.

    "Well stick a hydra in liederhosen and teach him to do the polka," Twilight muttered. She jumped up. "Where are my quills and parchment? I've got a letter to send to Mayor Sky High-- and to the Cloudsdale cloud factory!"

    "I'm guessing cuddle-time has been delayed for now," Ink Spot said wryly.

    "SPIKE! Urgent rush letter delivery!"

    (*) Luna was more liable to collaborate.

    1) Nyx's drawing of the duch*ess Glowerhaven would earn her compliments later for her marvelous rendition of a hippo in a dress.

    2)Pannier style, of course.

    3)In this continuity, Celestia gave the duty of reforming Discord to an entirely different pony. It worked out rather better, actually.

    Chapter 11

    "--- And so you see, addition of a single light spray application once every few days gives you a cloud surface capable of supporting non-pegasi as well as most solid objects," Twilight concluded. The earth-pony intern finished spritzing the test cloud with the sprayer and hopped up on top of it, grinning at the audience in the throne room from atop the small cumulus.

    Mayor Sky High applauded enthusiastically. "Fantastic! This changes everything!... Is there a way to make it permanent?" he asked.

    "As permanent as anything made of clouds," Twilight hedged, with an awkward chuckle. "If you add the potion to the cloud mixer beforehand, it should last as long as the cloud does..." she shrugged her wings. " Also, we're still determining whether treated clouds are still usable for weather: rain, snow and such. But for construction, they should be fine."

    Sky High walked around the cloud, regarding it. "It does have an interesting side effect," he noted. He was right; the cloud had a sort of faint rainbow shimmer, like mother of pearl. A faint rainbow was even forming, arching over it whenever the sunlight hit it right.

    Twilight nodded. "Not so much a bug as a feature," she said. "The rainbow shimmer makes it easier to tell the treated clouds from the untreated ones. Plus it's rather attractive, don't you think?"

    "You said it would hold up most solid objects," one of Sky High's aides noted cautiously.

    Twilight nodded reluctantly. "Yes," she said. "The clouds will hold most things, but certain enchanted artifacts or substances with certain magical properties-- or extremely dense and heavy ones of course-- will fall right through. We're doing further studies, making a table of items and materials, but I would recommend testing anything you're not certain about, first."

    "Sensible," Sky High said. "Still, this means an economic revolution for Cloudsdale... for pegasus cities everywhere."

    "For ponies everywhere," Twilight amended with a grin. "Imagine the applications that cloudstuff can be put to now that non-pegasi can handle it. I have a couple of earth pony friends who own cloud mattresses now."

    "Really?"

    "Easiest way to test the longevity of the treatment," Twilight chuckled. "Spritz a cloud with it and give it to an earth pony to sleep on."

    "Your Highness, I can't thank you enough..." Sky High said.

    Twilight held up a hoof. "Don't thank me, Mayor Sky High," she said. "Thanks goes to my friend Zecora for helping me convert the unicorn enchantment into a potion..." She paused, smiling sheepishly. "And to my daughter Nyx for coming up with the idea-- even if it did take me forever to listen to her long enough to hear it."

    Sky High's eyebrows rose. "Really?" Twilight chuckled again and showed him the note. The pegasus statespony chortled. "Well then, my thanks goes to her as well. Where is she, by the way?"

    Twilight smiled and sighed. "Off to Ponyville. It's a school day..."

    The royal chariot glided to a halt in the Ponyville street. Nyx and Spike hopped out. Nyx ran up to the front and gave the two stallions a quickhug. "Thank you Sundiver, thank you Lightning Blitz!" The two stallions grinned. "I'm glad Mom got you on our staff," Nyx said to them. After their heroic efforts on Nightmare Night on her behalf, she was very favorably disposed towards the two.

    "And we're rather glad you put in a good word for us," Sundiver chuckled. "We probably would have ended up guarding a hall full of historical chamber pots or something."

    Nyx looked down at herself. "Is all this really necessary?" She said suddenly. "Do I really have to wear this?" This morning, she hadn't escaped the clutches of the Quartet without incident. They had done up her mane in an elegant bob, and fitted her out with attire "appropriate to a princess." No fancy floufy dress, thank goodness, but her battered old saddlebags had been replaced with ones finished in royal purple silk and monogrammed in gold thread. She had gilded hoofshoes on, a little torc with Mom's cutie mark on it, and her barrette had been replaced with a small, but very obvious, tiara. A diamond tiara. Urgh.

    "It's straight down from the Princesses-- er, Princess Luna and Princess Celestia, that is,"You're royalty, you gotta dress the part now. At least a little," Sundiver said. "Why are you so set against wearing such pretty jewelry, anyway?"

    There was an "eep" behind them. Nyx and Spike turned around to see a familiar looking pony standing behind them. The pony in question was wearing a metal bracelet around her front ankle with the icon for "changeling" worked on it in black; all changelings were required by law to wear the magic-proof symbol at all times. It took a moment for Nyx to realize who it probably was. "Flitter?"

    There was a flash of green, and the pony transformed into the changeling filly. It was Flitter, all right. She had changed a bit since Nightmare Night. Her mane-fin and tail were a vivid shade of pink, for one. The plentiful love in Ponyville had done her good as well; she had shot up like a weed, going from tiny and scrawny to merely lanky. She looked the way she had that night, though; nervous and uncertain.

    "Oh-- uh, good morning, Your Highness," she stuttered. She went into a deep bow to Nyx... keeping a wary eye on the two guards standing behind her.

    Nyx stamped a gilded hoof. "Fliiitterrr, it's me!" she said. "Stop that!" She jumped forward and pulled the startled changeling upright.

    Flitter shuffled awkwardly, her head hanging, and kicked one hoof in the dirt. "I wasn't... you know... sure," she said. "I mean, what had changed or not."

    Nyx looked disgruntled. She looked back at Lightning Blitz and Sundiver. "Now do you see why I don't wanna wear this stuff?" she said.

    Blitz only shrugged, while Sundiver grinned and looked apologetic. "Sorry, Princess," he said. "Orders are orders."

    "I guess we'll see you after school," Spike said to the two. "Oh, be sure and stop by Sugarcube Corner. I'm sure Pinkie will have an extra cupcake or two for you." The guards chuckled and trotted off, hauling the chariot behind them.

    Nyx looked back at her changeling friend. "Crud. Everypony's gonna get all weird, aren't they," she said glumly.

    Flitter regarded her. "Gosh. You're awful unhappy about this, aren't you," she said.

    Spike grunted. "Considering all the promises everyone made us that we wouldn't get dragged into all that royalty garbage, not surprising," he said.

    "I don't want it to be like this," Nyx complained. "What am I gonna do? What happens when I get to school wearing this stuff? Everypony's gonna think I've gone all... all Diamond Tiara," she finished scornfully.

    Flitter's head was still hanging. She gave Nyx a sly look out of the corner of her eye. Nyx was immediately on alert; in the short time she'd known her, she'd learned that the changeling filly had a puckish sense of humor, and she could see the gears turning already. "Say, Nyx," Flitter said, a grin slowly spreading across her face. "You wanna have some fun with everypony....?"

    The last bell had rung, and everypony in Cheerilee's classroom had settled in. Cheerilee was reading off the roll call.

    "Namby Pamby?"

    "Here!"

    "Night Breeze?"

    "Here!"

    "Nyx...?"

    There was a blast of a tinny trumpet outside the classroom door. Cheerilee nearly jumped out of her seat. Standing at the door was Spike the Dragon, decked out in a pageboy hat and holding a toy trumpet. "All hail Princess Nyx Sparkle of Equestria!" Spike shouted. He tucked the toy horn under his arm and backed into the room, bowing and scraping. In strode Nyx, prancing regally with her nose held high.

    Everyone stared, jaws gaping, as she marched in. She was holding a scepter in one gold-shod hoof, and had a fur-lined red velvet cloak draped over her back, her tiny wings poking up through the holes. Perched onher head was a glittering tiara the size of a cow-catcher off a locomotive. "Greetings, all our loyal pony subjects!" she singsonged at the top of her lungs in a plummy Canterlot accent. "We have deigned to come down from the castle and partake of education with thee. Thou. You all. Ahem."

    Cheerilee was at a loss. "Nyx..."

    "Oh yes, yes, do show no favoritism," Nyx continued to yodel. "No special treatment for me-- just act exactly the same as you would in the presence of any other noble alicorn ruler of Equestria..." She flounced her way back through the classroom, between the rows of speechless colts and fillies, and flung herself into a seat-- right next to Diamond Tiara.

    Diamond Tiara's expression was indescribable.

    'Princess Nyx' made a show of looking Diamond Tiara up and down. She paused at the spoiled earth filly's headgear, then lowered her eyes to DT's. She leaned in conspiratorially. "Mine's bigger," she said with a smirk.

    Cheerilee had enough. "All right now..." she said sternly.

    There was a squeal of laughter from the doorway. Everyone turned and looked. There stood Nyx, or rather there lay Nyx; she had fallen to the floor and was rolling back and forth, laughing fit to bust. Spike was on the floor next to her, kicking his feet and clutching his gut. "Oh, your FACES...!" Nyx howled.

    "Princess Nyx" flared green, and there sat Flitter, rocking back and forth laughing. Pretty soon the entire class had joined in, the entire room filled with rollicking laughter. Even Cheerilee was chuckling. "All right you three," she said. "Take your seats so we can get started. And welcome back, Nyx."

    Beaming, Nyx got to her feet and trotted into the classroom, getting welcome-back hugs and back pats from her friends, and more than one compliment on her royal jewelry. The ice was broken and she was back. Diamond Tiara of course just rolled her eyes and snorted; in the manner of someone who has been upstaged and knows they can do nothing about it.

    Nyx smiled and took out her schoolbooks. One awkward moment was past, and she was sure there were more coming.... She grinned and waved at Flitter; the changeling filly smiled and mimed a hoof bump.

    ...But with friends like this, she'd get by.

    Chapter 12

    "Your Majesties, a fish approaches."

    As attention-getting interruptions went, it was pretty good. The princesses of Equestria looked up from the debate at hand and stared at the guard who had delivered the message, nonplussed. It was a welcome distraction for some. Thwarted in their efforts to get the new wayward Princess Twilight under their control by marrying her off(1), the lords and ladies had hit upon the notion of sending her away. Far, far away. To tend to some currently-empty throne in some barely-remembered fiefdom or other. For the good of Equestria, of course.

    To that end the House of Lords had finagled a meeting with Celestia, Luna and Twilight, and were wasting the early morning of a perfectly good Saturday petitioning Celestia and Luna to send the Alicorn of Magic off to "rule" over an archipelago in the Eastern sea. Celestia had just gotten through explaining, for the third time, that yes the Unicorn Archipelago had nopony on the throne at the moment, and as they had been so for the past two hundred and twenty seven years it was self evident that the population of four hundred currently there could continue managing their affairs without their own princess, thank you very much.(2) The guard's arrival and peculiar announcement had been a welcome distraction from listening to the Lord Duke Wellington Boot huff and bluster. "Beg pardon?" Celestia said, blinking.

    "A fish, your Highness," the guard said. "A giant fish. It was spotted rising from the Western Sea. At its current flight speed, unless it changes course it will arrive in Canterlot by noon today."

    Recognition crossed Celestia's face. "A giant flying fish?"

    "Yes, your Highness. The size of a galleon."

    "Blue metallic scales, gold trim?" Celestia pressed.

    The guard paused, taken aback. "Y-yes, your Highness, I believe the report mentioned something about 'blue, with gold flecks...' and it seems to be followed by a flotilla... um, a school? of smaller fish like it."

    The gleam in Celestia's eye made Twilight's eyebrows rise. Who, or what, was coming this way?

    "A flight of pegasi and sky chariots is on its way to intercept," the guard continued. "What are your orders, your Highnesses?"

    Celestia got to her hooves, the smile on her face absolutely radiant. "Firstly, it is not a fish. It is a ship. A royal ship. Tell them to offer our welcome with the utmost courtesy, and to escort our visitors here." She raised her voice. "Attention, everypony! Court is cancelled for the day, all meetings are postponed. Make the palace ready. Roll out the red carpets, all of them! Clean the castle, top to bottom. Clean and decorate. Lay out the finest banquet. Prepare the royal guest suites..."

    One of the castle staff stepped forward. "What theme for the banquet, your Highness? The decor?"

    "Aquatic, of course," Celestia answered, chattering on. "Plenty of seafood and island cuisine, but include some Canterlot and Ponyville dishes as well for variety, be sure and include some Sweet Apple Acres cider-- oh! Summon the Bearers as well, they should be in attendance for this, and issue a summons for all the royalty and noble families of Equestria; this is a state event-- tell them to wear their finest-- "Servants and staff scurried to obey. She turned to Twilight and Luna. "Oh, Twilight, Luna, we will all need to prepare. Nyx too; she's a princess too and should be in attendance... Wear your finest, but gods and imps not that coronation wear, it's too stiff and uncomfortable and the colors clash anyway,(3) wear those lovely things that Miss Rarity made for you.(4) Oh, and Twilight?" She suddenly seemed anxious. "May I borrow back Sea Foam for the day? I'm afraid she's the only one who knows how to fix my mane up in the way I want for this..."

    "Sister...?" Luna said, querying. Her eyebrow rose uncertainly. "What... is all this about?" Twilight said nothing but pressed in closer, face alight with curiosity.

    Celestia smiled at her sister and her protege', her eyes sparkling. She seemed positively giddy. " Oh Luna, Twilight, isn't it obvious?

    "We have a gentleman caller!"

    Down in the depths of the castle, in chambers set deep in the mountain itself, a meeting was taking place that would have sent Canterlot's conspiracy theorists climbing the walls in panic had they known about it. Nopony would have blamed them, though; some of those in attendance were made rather nervous by the circ*mstances themselves.

    After all, two of those in attendance were deposed former tyrants of Equestria.

    "Another cookie?" Discord said to Nyx, holding out the tray.

    "Thank you, I think I shall," Nyx said in her politest voice, taking one.She dunked it in her teacup and took a bite. This one tasted like pizza. She regarded the cookie and her teacup. "You know, ponies do an awful lot of tea parties."

    "It's just one of those things one gets used to," Discord agreed, dunking his teacup into his cookie, drinking the cookie, and taking a bite out of the cup (Raspberry flan flavored.)

    "On the other hoof, free cookies," Pinkie Pie said cheerfully, scarfing one down (tofu hot dog.)

    "True, true. So what brings you two down to my little lair?" Discord asked.

    "Just doing my duty as your parole officer," Pinkie said. She whipped out a notepad and a police hat and glared at Discord across the table. "All right, Discord, whadda you got to report on this month? You been doing your community service?"

    "Of course," Discord said. "I kept notes, see?" He held out a chinese menu.

    Pinkie Pie scrutinized it with a serious expression. "Good, everything's in order. And I'll have the moo goo gai pan." A cardboard takeout box popped into existence in front of her. She picked up the chopsticks and dug in with relish.

    Nyx giggled. "You two are silly," she said.

    “Why, thank you,” Discord said with a smirk.

    The other three guests looked a bit more nervous. Cherry Blossom had been given the duty of arranging this early-morning tea, and was feeling rather intimidated. Sundiver and Lightning Blitz were there as security and were feeling decidedly out of their depth, and were wondering with no little irony whether it was the allegedly reformed Chaos spirit, the unpredictable Element of Laughter, or the former Nightmare Moon who was the most potentially alarming guest.

    Some time ago, Princess Celestia had found herself chastened by the redemption of both Luna and Nyx to reconsider the imprisonment of yet another being. She had released Discord from his prison of stone, on condition of his reformation, and assigned the Bearers as his probation officers. One in particular was to be his overseer and final arbiter, and to try and win him over as a friend.

    That pony was Pinkie Pie.

    The two had gotten on like a house afire (much to the alarm of the other Bearers, to say nothing of the more sedate citizens of Ponyville.) But Discord had been more and more carelessly cruel with his jests and pranks, till he'd finally gone too far..and Pinkie Pie had told him their friendship was over and run off in a torrent of tears. It was at that point the draconequus had realized that he had lost the only real friend he'd had in his millennia-long life. He had followed her to make amends... and found she had stumbled into a long-forgotten magical trap meant for him. He had ended up sacrificing the lion's share of his power to save her. Much diminished, and greatly changed, he had returned to the palace and was now rumored to be out and about doing tasks obscure and arcane for the rulers of Equestria. He and Pinkie were fast friends, and got together as often as they could.

    The rumors that the Cakes were now drinking heavily or on psychotherapeutic medication were false. Understandable, but false. They were spending a lot of time on meditative yoga and stress counseling, though.

    “So how's the big project coming, Disky?” Pinkie Pie asked, spraying crumbs. Nyx really didn't know why she was trying so hard to mind her table manners when the grownups were acting like this. Maybe for contrast.

    “Oh, a few breakthroughs, but nothing massive," Discord confessed. "Still, baby steps, baby steps..."

    "Big Project?" Cherry Blossom couldn't help asking.

    Discord waved his lion paw at the chamber around them. It was packed to the walls with beakers, tubes, wires, gauges, bunsen burners, bottles full of bubbly liquids, things that went "zap," other things that went "doink," and still more that went "ding" and then there was stuff. And at least one live duck, wandering aimlessly through the shelves. "You don't suppose this is my preferred form of interior decoration, do you?"

    "It... could be," Cherry Blossom ventured cautiously.

    "So what's the Big Project?" Nyx asked.

    Discord didn't answer at first. He gave the alicorn filly a knowing smile. "I suppose you were quite overjoyed when you learned that your adoptive mother was an alicorn as well," he said. "Am I right?"

    Nyx frowned at the change of subject, but nodded.

    "Can you tell me why?" Discord said.

    Nyx fidgeted on her cushion. "Because... because before, she wasn't immortal like I was," Nyx admitted softly. "And... I knew someday she was going to get old and die. But... now that she's an alicorn like me--" She around at the adults, embarrassed by her admission. "I know that everything dies someday and goes Beyond, even immortal alicorns. But it was going to be so soon--! "

    "And even before that, you would have to watch her get older and older," Discord said. "And sicker and sicker, and be able to do nothing about it..." Nyx nodded, her face puffing up with tears. "Now now, none of that," Discord said, whipping out a polka dot handkerchief. Nyx blew her nose into it; a foghorn blast echoed in the room, making her giggle. "Better--- But now she's an immortal, isn't she? She'll be with you a long, long time, and she'll be healthy and whole for all of it." Discord sat back and threw the handkerchief over his shoulder. It exploded into a cloud of chicken feathers.

    "Now wouldn't you want something that wonderful for all your friends?"

    Nyx nodded, thinking of the other Bearers, of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, of the Cakes and the Pies.... then her eyes went wide as she realized what Discord was saying. "You mean you're working on-- a way to make everypony immortal?"

    A bell and buzzer went off someplace. "Congratulations, you said the secret woid," Discord (who was now sporting a pair of Groucho glasses) announced. "That means the duck comes down." The duck, also wearing a pair of Groucho glasses, dropped down from the ceiling on a Slinky and handed Nyx an envelope. Nyx tore it open. Inside was a cupcake. For lack of any better ideas, she ate it. It tasted like a daisyburger.

    "That's... that's wonderful!" Cherry Blossom said. "...Are you getting close?"

    "A little bit at a time," Discord admitted. "Not as fast as I'd like, but Sunnybutt, Moontush and I are getting close. We've already made several developments that will extend pony life by about twenty percent, and delay senescence by about a decade. Introducing them will be complex: A few spells added to the cloud machines in Cloudsdale, some changes to the nutritional contents of processed food, a little extra something in the flu vaccines next year..." he shrugged.

    "Oh wow!" Nyx said, grinning gleefully.

    "Huh," Sundiver said over his teacup. "I would have figured your big project to be, I dunno, building a better rubber chicken or something."

    Pinkie Pie scoffed. "Don't be ridiculous," she said. "Disky and I did that last month." She whipped out a rubber chicken and pointed it at Sundiver's face, giving its belly a squeeze.

    PUCKAAAAWWWWWWWKKKKK!!!

    Sundiver's helmet flew off, his mane blowing back in the blast. He sat there for a moment, dazed. Pinkie looked at him in expectation. "Well?" she asked.

    Sundiver grinned. "Can I have one?"

    Nyx laughed so hard she nearly choked. Lightning Blitz just groaned and rolled his eyes. Cherry Blossom took the opening to pour more tea (it turned to chocolate milk as it left the spout). "This is a wonderful thing," she said to Discord. "But if you don't mind my saying so, all this... scientific, um, stuff... seems rather... Order-ish? for you."

    Discord grinned. "Well that depends on whether I'm using 'science,' " he made air-quotes, "or ... "SCIENCE!!" The word reverberated off the walls. He stood and threw his arms wide; the word 'SCIENCE' formed over his head in an arc of three foot high, crackling neon letters. "And scientists and inventors are some of the most wonderfully chaotic people you could ever meet. Did you know that the reason the pony who discovered penicillin did so was because his lab was a complete mess? He left some petri dishes out, some flecks of moldy breadcrumb got in them... and the rest is history.(A) There was another inventor who never cleaned his desk-- he threw down layers of butcher paper on top of everything when his desk got too cluttered.(B) And you should see Time Turner's workshop back in Ponyville-- lots of lovely chaos.

    "Besides..." he said, sitting back down. He looked at Nyx, whose laughter had died down to a few stifled giggles. "-- oh let's have the Quiz Kid answer this one. Tell us, Nyx, what does Chaos involve?"

    Nyx scratched her head with a hoof. "Um... change?"

    The bell and buzzer sounded again. The duck handed her another cupcake. This one was lemon sherbet. "Precisely," Discord said. "Chaos is neither good nor evil. Neither is Order, for that matter, but let's stick to talking about Chaos. Chaos is randomness. Chaos is change. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. And this little science fair project of ours is darn well guaranteed to CHANGE THE WORL... ahem." He thumped his chest. "Testing testing ONE TWO... AH. TO CHANGE THE WORLD!!" Dun dun dunnnn..." He sat back and sipped his chocolate milk. "And what could be more fabulously chaotic than that?"

    "Why do ponies think I was a villain, all those millennia ago? I was immortal, and I had nothing. I didn't even bother with friendship, because what was the point? Anypony I tried to care about would be gone in the blink of an eye. So I never learned about friendship, and my heart turned hard as stone. But now... now I've learned." He looked over at Pinkie, who was blowing bubbles in her chocolate milk with a straw. His normally wicked grin softened. "I've learned that there are some things worth fighting to save."

    There was a knock at the door. A palace courier slipped inside and galloped to Cherry Blossom's side to whisper something in her ear. She sat up, eyes wide. "Oh my! Sir Discord, I'm afraid Princess Nyx and I must go. A very important guest is arriving soon and her mother wishes for her to be prepared for the reception."

    There was a faint "Aww" from Nyx. Discord looked keenly interested. "And who might this guest be? Am I expected to make an appearance?" He got a wicked grin. "I'd hate to miss out on livening up the festivities..."

    The courier shook his head. "The Princesses didn't say," he said. "But they are apparently arriving by... er... by way of a giant flying fish."

    Discord's expression almost miraculously changed to one of extreme disinterest. "Meh, I know the bloke," he said, reclining in his chair. "I'll stay here unless summoned. He's no fun at all. Besides," he half-muttered to himself, "Celestia would flat out kill me if I messed things up for her now--"

    "Come along, your Highness," Cherry Blossom said to Nyx. "We have to go make you all pretty." She smiled at the alicorn filly.

    "What for?" Nyx said, setting her cup down and hopping down out of her chair.

    "For a very special guest," Cherry Blossom said. "King Triton is coming to visit!"

    The royal flagship of King Triton sailed into view from the towers of Canterlot as the sun reached its zenith. It hovered silently in the air, an enormous glittering fantail goldfish the size of a merchant ship. Its metal scales, blue-green and trimmed in gold, gleamed in the sun. It sailed at a sedate pace through the clouds, it's fin-shaped sails fanning slowly, propelling it along. A flight of pegasi flanked it on either side, while a handful of smaller guppy-like courier vessels hovered around it, flitting back and forth.

    Ponies crowded the streets of Canterlot, gaping up at the spectacle drifting along overhead. Every balcony and rooftop had pony spectators staring in awe at the vast, elegant ship. Canterlot castle was no exception. Every window was crowded as servants and soldiers, petitioners and nobility, bureaucrats and broom pushers alike dropped everything to watch as the flagship of Atlantis arrived.

    The Western Courtyard was in actuality more of an enormous balcony, jutting out from the side of the castle, hanging over one of the enormous waterfalls that provided Canterlot with its water. It was built to hold ceremonies and gatherings in the open air.... and also served as a landing place for royalty and heads of state arriving by sky rather than by land.The air vessel drifted over to hover in midair next to the castle, just outside of the Western arch. It slowly edged closer till its nose was but a few feet from the ledge that ran around the courtyard. then windows opened in its sides and torrents of water cascaded down its scaly flanks, falling to mingle into the waterfall thundering below. ("They're letting the water level drop inside the ship," Celestia muttered into Twilight's ear by way of explanation. "If they didn't, dropping the gangway would spill water out in a gush on us.")

    The jaw of the giant goldfish dropped, its chin resting on the edge of the parapet, forming a gangway. ("and it keeps it from looking like the ship is barfing up the passengers," Twilight thought silently.(5))A procession of soldiers came out.A procession of sea pony soldiers.

    A gasp of astonishment went up from the crowd as they appeared. From the middle forward, they resembled ordinary earth ponies or unicorns. But from the waist back, they had long, limber dolphin tails. Fishlike scales gleamed on their flanks. They were outfitted in heavy bronze armor, curled like nautilus shells, and carried short, sharp tridents. They did not walk out of the ship, but rather floated, suspended in shimmering balls of water.

    Nyx tore her attention away from the astonishing sight before her and regarded Princess Celestia out of the corner of her eye. When Celestia said she wanted to roll out the red carpet, she had not been exaggerating.

    The courtyard was decorated to a fare-thee-well with dozens of tapestries, hangings, banners and trimmings in the usual sun-and-moon trappings of the palace intermingled with ones with themes from the sea. The royal guard, day and night, was in full presence, gold and indigo armor gleaming. The Princesses of Canterlot themselves were no less dandied up; they were all together-- Celestia, Luna, Twilight and Nyx--- standing in the great courtyard, dressed in their best finery and waiting for the vessel to make its berth. Celestia in particular was looking seriously made up. Along with her usual minimal gold tiara and torc, she was wearing a shimmering, flowing dress of sea-foam green. And her mane and tail were made up in a way Nyx had never seen before; it was still flowing and rippling, but it was slower, almost as if it was underwater. They were done up with jewels, mostly pearls, and seashells, and rippled down over her shoulder and flank on one side like a rainbow colored waterfall.

    What's more, she looked... nervous and eager. Almost like Twilight did when she was expecting Ink Spot to arrive. Nyx squinted. And was Celestia biting her lip ever so slightly?

    Once they had formed up in two rows, a single seapony came down between them. The water around his head and shoulders parted and he blew on a conch shell. The finny soldiers snapped to attention. "Presenting, his Royal Highness, King Triton, Master of the great sea currents and King of the Western Seas!"

    Down the gangplank, flanked by several more mer-ponies, came... aHippocampus. He was bigger than the rest of them, as much as Celestia was larger than regular ponies. He was lean and strong, with muscles that rippled under his pearl-colored coat. His mane was blue and green, and flowed down his neck in waves from under his crown. He had a short, neatly trimmed beard, a long tapered horn, and bore an enormous golden trident, as tall as he was long, in the crook of his left foreleg... well, just his left leg, Nyx supposed. He only had the two. And he had two enormous white wings rising from his back.

    Wow.

    Celestia strode forward to meet him. "Welcome, King Triton," she said softly. Was she blushing?? "It has been too long since last we met."

    King Triton looked about, then back at Princess Celestia. His face was stern. "Indeed," he said, sighing. "And I am sorry it is not under better circ*mstances."

    "How do you mean?" Celestia said, concerned. "What trouble that brings you to our door?"

    "Trouble between my kingdom and thine," Triton said gruffly. He raised his voice to be heard by the crowd. "As king of the ponies of Atlantis, as the high seat on the Assembly of the Western Kingdoms, and a member of the Council of Celestial Stewards, I come on their behalf to bring a petition of grievances against the land of Equestria."

    A gasp arose from the crowd again. Murmurs of confusion flew. Celestia looked shocked. "And what might these grievances be?" she said, finally.

    "The disruption, damage and destruction caused by the grievous mishandling of the Sun and Moon."

    There was stunned silence. Then a tiny filly voice could be heard.

    "Oh horseapples."

    1)While notable for its spectacular results, Lord Duke Blueblood's attempt was far from the last. Unhindered by the fact that Twilight and Ink Spot had publicly announced their betrothal, several ambitious types had made overtures ranging from the subtle to the gross... clumsy seductions, marriage deals bordering on bribes, attempts to catch either of the betrothed out in an "indiscretion..." the results had been uniform and consistent: A short teleportation, followed by a long drop to the royal reflecting pool and a quick frog-march to the front gate. Sometimes with a detour to the hospital wing where bouquets, engagement rings, marriage contracts, and badly faked "incriminating photos" were extracted from various bodily orifices.

    2)They had already attempted a petition the week before to send her to rule over the recently discovered Flutterpony settlement in Hollow Shades. The Flutterpony Queen had been rather miffed.

    3)This statement set off a chain of gossip that led to the current royal dressmaker breaking down in a fit of histrionics that would make Rarity roll her eyes in disgust, tendering resignation and fleeing to Vanhoover in outraged tears. And there was much rejoicing, at least among the fashion sensible and the non color blind.

    4)Rarity's reaction to this bit of court gossip would of course be ecstatic bordering on the indecent.

    5)Nyx, on the other hand, impishly pondered whether the king made ponies he didn't like exit from the other end of the ship...)

    A) True Story.

    B)Also true.

    Chapter 13

    Protocol had to be observed. Celestia and Luna extended the hospitality of Canterlot to the King of the Western Sea and his entourage, and offered them berth for the royal vessel in one of the zeppelin docks that were dotted down the side of Canterlot mountain. The crowds of shmoozing nobility and rich up-and-comers was then hastily dispersed, and the royal tet-a-tete was quickly moved into the throne room.... with only the most need-to-know ponies present for the discussion. Which in this case was Celestia, Luna, Triton, Twilight, Nyx and a handful of guards who knew that it was worth more than their jobs to flap their lips about what was discussed here.

    King Triton now stood on four hooves. Those who did not know of the powers of the hippocampi would have never known him for a creature of the sea-- though perhaps the shimmer of scales on his flanks and the slightly fin-like appearance of his tail might have made them wonder. He strode into the throne room, only two of his guards at his side, still in their floating bubbles. He looked about the room... with a surprising air of awkwardness. "You've... done a few things with the old place, I see," he said, coughing a bit. "--How fares Sea Foam?" he asked suddenly.

    "Quite well," Celestia said. "She is the one who did my mane like this."

    "Ah," Triton said. "She always was talented in that regard. It looks lovely, may I say. Goodness, she was barely more than a filly when she left my palace for yours..."

    Celestia's serene smile didn't change. "As I said before," she replied, "It has been far too long since last we met. And far longer since you last visited. You were a good friend in my sister's long absence."

    "Indeed," he admitted, finally meeting her eyes. "And as I said, I would that this visit was under better circ*mstances." He looked sincerely unhappy.

    "As much as we surmised," Luna said dryly, breaking into the conversation. "Wouldst thou care to enlighten us as to why the Western Kingdoms are raising a cry for reparations against our nation?"

    King Triton jerked and looked over at the lunar princess. "Because it is the opinion of the Council that Equestria has violated the provisions of the Celestial Pact," he said.

    "The Celestial Pact?" Twilight said.

    Celestia sighed. "Twilight, you know that before my sister and I were born, the Unicorns raised the Sun and the Moon. Did you ever wonder who it was that did it before even they did?"

    Twilight nodded, blushing a bit. It had crossed her mind.

    "And what did you learn?" Celestia urged.

    Twilight suddenly took on the air of a little filly being quizzed in a lecture hall, glancing aside awkwardly and shuffling one hoof. "Well, thousands of years ago, before even Equestria was founded, the Sun and Moon... well, apparently at one time, the Sun and Moon orbited our world entirely on their own. Then, something happened to disrupt that. History doesn't say what... some versions of the story state that we once had a different Moon and Sun, but lost them... and had to make new ones...." she shrugged.

    Celestia nodded. "More or less. Either way, at the time there were few races or beings that could handle the job of setting them in motion. After much delegation and deliberation, A treaty was signed between the great powers to divide the oversight of the Sun and Moon, and the forces that they once controlled. The Sea Ponies were given control of the great ocean currents. the Gryphons, the jet streams, the high winds of the stratosphere. The Ki Rin, the Aurora. And the Sun and Moon, to the Unicorns.

    "This was the state of affairs for millennia, the oversight of the powers being passed on when time or tragedy would take one of the signatories. Then Luna and I were born...and sort of altered things accidentally.

    "Due to our... unique natures, and our bond with the Sun and Moon, The Pact had to be renegotiated. This time with ourselves as signatories rather than the entire unicorn race. That was how King Triton and I-- er, we-- met." Celestia blushed a bit at her slip and gave Triton a look.

    "Just as I myself became the steward of the ocean currents and the tides," King Triton said. "...Ah, though I always follow the lead of the Moon in the latter. As a matter of professional courtesy." He gave Luna a courteous half-bow. Luna nodded, acknowledging it.

    "That treaty had certain provisions," Celestia went on. "The first was that none of the signatories ever abuse that power or use it to cause harm to the other nations of the world, particularly to the kingdoms or races of its signatories."

    "The first provision was broken by the Gryphons, during the Gryphon War," Luna cut in. "Celestia was then permitted by the pact to use her powers to cast an eclipse over the Gryphon Empire, forcing them to fight in darkness and breaking their will."

    "The provision was broken... at least in letter... some thousand years ago as well. Ahem. I think you can surmise how." King Triton nodded at Luna, who flushed. "The signatories let it slide; it was for little more than a day. Likewise they let it slide when Discord mucked about with things-- the unicorns could hardly be blamed for his antics, and there was some guilt over not coming to their aid when Discord rose to power. And to this day they are uncertain whether he actually made the moon and sun hop about like that or whether he simply cast an illusion to make it seem that way. Either way, he was soon brought to task... by none other than fair Celestia and Luna."

    "And once again, by Twilight and her friends," Celestia added, nodding at a nearby stained glass window commemorating the event.

    "Ah, yes," Triton said. "Goodness, quite an achievement. And a new alicorn-- two new alicorns... it's good to see your numbers finally multiplying." He pointed between Twilight, Nyx, and the two elder princesses. "I'm assuming the little one is yours, Luna and..." he seemed to hesitate painfully, "And the older one is....?"

    Celestia blinked, and then laughed. "Oh no no no. Twilight is only my student, Triton, though she is as dear to me as if she were my daughter. She ascended fairly recently. And Nyx is her adopted daughter." She very explicitly gave no more explanation than that.

    Nyx lifted her hoof and started to say something, but Twilight put a hoof over her mouth. "Ssh dear, the Princesses are talking," she said, giving Nyx a look. Nyx got the message; further explanations of her origins were not wanted right now, thank you. She closed her mouth and shut up. It was probably too long-winded to go into right now anyway.

    "Oh really? So you never-- that is, um..." Triton said.

    "Oh no," Celestia said, shaking her head. "I'm still not... that is... um, no special somepony, really--"

    "Oh? Oh, good." Triton sounded suspiciously happy about that. "Ah, I mean-- I didn't mean to imply that... I mean not to say either of you--" he pointed to Celestia and Luna, faltering. He harrumphed. "Well, getting back to business--"

    "Yes," Celestia agreed.

    "Anyway. Those incidents, the signatories could brush off. But, just this year past..." he shook his head. "Without warning, without explanation, the Sun became frozen in the sky over the Western Sea. For two weeks. Two weeks!"

    Nyx blinked, then it dawned on her. Of course: the world was round. While she had been making "Night Eternal" here in Equestria, she'd been making DAY eternal on the other side of the world!

    "Was the damage... bad?" Twilight asked, wincing fearfully.

    Triton looked at her. "Princess Twilight, do you know anything of meteorology? Fourteen days of sun didn't just make it unduly hot, or hard to sleep. It warmed the ocean. The surface temperature of the ocean waters rose several degrees over most of its surface. And when you get league upon league of unduly warm water, the air above it gets warm and humid too. Meanwhile, the perpetual nighttime made huge, deep masses of cold air. And when cold air blows from the dark side of the world and collides with the warm masses of the sun side, you get--"

    "Storms," Twilight finished, closing her eyes and pulling her ears back in dismay. "Huge continuous storms. Probably in a line encircling the globe, between the day and night sides...."

    "And hurricanes," King Triton added. "Huge, destructive typhoons... like a tornado hundreds of miles across that destroy everything in their wake."

    "Everything?" Nyx whispered in horror. Her insides turned to water.

    "Everything," Triton affirmed, looking at Celestia and Luna. "Rip up trees, flatten buildings, flood surges that drown entire islands, flood coastal cities and turn harbors to kindling, .... And there were nearly a dozen of them. One after the other, for months after the Sun and Moon resumed their courses." Nyx's eyes turned rounder and rounder with every sentence.

    "It took that long, even with all my power turning the waters of the ocean over, to cool the waves to normal. Most of my kingdom lies below the surface of the ocean, but other nations on our half of the world were not so fortunate. The island of Formosa had thousands of families living on it, but after three enormous typhoons rolled over it not a single living soul is left there--"

    "NO!"

    The adults nearly jumped out of their shoes as Nyx's piteous scream split the air. The little alicorn staggered forward blindly on unfeeling legs, horror and anguish falling over her like a black curtain. Villages, cities, harbors, Thousands and thousands of ponies, dead, because of her, Nonononono---

    She toppled off the dais and fell over onto her side on the floor, her quaking hooves tucked up to her belly as her eyes stared sightlessly into nothing.

    She woke up... she didn't know how much later. The darkness slowly melted away, and she found herself cradled in her mother's forehooves. Twilight was rocking her and nuzzling her and crooning that everything was okay, everything was okay... But nothing was okay, she'd messed up the Moon and the Sun, she'd set loose storms, she'd killed all those people...

    Somepony was shouting. It sounded like Luna? "... Clotpole!Maggot-pie! Jolt-head! Dunce! Fie on thee, thou chowder faced loon! Wast thou born an addlepate, thou oceangoing get of a drunken fishmonger?"

    Nyx suddenly wanted a dictionary. She was pretty sure some of those words were naughty.

    Nyx opened her eyes and peeked out of her mother's embrace. It was Princess Luna all right. She was bellowing at the top of the Royal Canterlot Voice right in King Triton's face. He looked absolutely chastened, and a little bit intimidated too. "Canst thou not check thy tongue ere thou let it fall out of thy head?" Luna yelled. "Thou didst make the poor child believe she'd slain thousands unawares!"

    "Gads, I didn't--- wait, what?" Triton went from chastened to bewildered. "How...?" He collected himself. "How the deuce could a little filly be responsible for all that destruction..."

    Tears gushed from Nyx's face. "I'm so sorry," she sobbed. Twilight rocked her harder.

    "TRI-ton...!" Celestia said, exasperated, facehoofing. "THINK before you speak!"

    "I would if someone would explain enough for me to think about!" Triton yelled, a little exasperated himself. He stared hard at the filly in question. Guilt, shame, grief, all etched in the streaks of tears down her face.The tiny thing was shaking from the strength of her emotions.

    The filly wailed into her mother's neck. "I killed them, I killed them all--"

    One could see the moment he realized, the dawning realization spreading across his face; it really was true. Somehow the hysterical filly was connected to the wayward sun. He then realized what the sobbing filly had thought happened to Formosa. "Oh dear Maker, my blundering tongue..."

    "Oh, no, no, child," he said, kneeling down to bring his face closer to Nyx. "You misunderstood. Nopony was killed on Formosa."

    "But-- y-you said there was nopony left alive--"

    Triton blew out a breath in chagrin. "I meant that nopony lives there any more, because the buildings were all squashed," he said. "The Formosans are selkies... they look like monkeys on land but turn into seals when they go into the water. They just all swam off the island when they saw the storm coming. Not a one of them was harmed."

    "Really?" Nyx said weakly.

    "I give you my word," King Triton said.

    "...Pinkie Promise?"

    "Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye," King Triton said, going through the motions with a smile. At the other's astonished looks, he merely shrugged. "Word gets around."

    Most of the tension left Nyx's body the moment the pinkie oath was made. "I'm still sorry," she said. "I'm so sorry." She fought back another batch of tears and sniffed mightily. "I-- I broke the world--!"

    "No," Triton sighed. "But you did ding it up quite a bit." He raised up on his forehooves and looked at the Princesses. "Now, could somepony please explain to me how a filly barely bigger than my hoof is responsible for the hijacking of the Sun and Moon?"

    The three mares present looked at each other and sighed. Celestia settled down on her throne cushion. "That, dear Triton," she said, "Is a long story."

    It was a tale long in the telling indeed. A half hour of talking later, the king of the Western Sea was left all but speechless. "Unbelievable," he said. "I cannot believe all this happened in such a little space."

    "I guess you don't get the Trans Equestria Chronicle out in Atlantis,"Twilight said in amusem*nt. The king gave her a puzzled look. Twilight laughed. "That's an even longer story, your Majesty. One involving lost legacies, ancient tombs, earth pony magic, giant dragons and the Crystal Empire."

    Triton started. "The Crystal Empire has returned?"

    The princesses laughed at him. "You really do need to stay in touch more," Celestia chided.

    Triton glanced at Nyx, who was huddled under her mother's wing. "This does make a strange addition to the pot, doesn't it?" he said ruefully. "I find it almost inconceivable, I can only imagine what the other members of the Council will have to say."

    "I promise I'll tell them it was my fault," Nyx said humbly.

    "That is very honest of you, Nyx." He got to his hooves and started pacing. "Though I don't see how it makes any difference in the long run. For you, or for your kingdom."

    Nyx looked up at her mother, worried. "What does he mean?"

    Twilight in turn looked to her mentor, frowning. "Yes, what does he mean?"

    "He means that it matters little who was on the throne when the skies... went out of control," Celestia said. "A ruler is the embodiment of her nation. As such, her actions are counted against not just her, but against her country."

    "Which is why the Council, and the nations of the Western Sea, will assemble here," Triton said. "The nations of the Western Sea, to submit their petitions demanding penalties, reparations, or both, to be levied against Equestria... and the Council, to determine what course of action to take against the entities responsible."

    Nyx's mouth dropped open in shock. "You mean all of Equestria is going to be punished for what I did?" Her voice was the very essence of childish upset. "That's not fair!!"

    Twilight Sparkle was no less shocked. "You can't be serious!"

    Triton co*cked a regal eyebrow at her. "Completely. What," he said, his voice rich with droll amusem*nt, "do you think that the signatories of the Council are just going to show up, give the guilty party a spanking, and then be on their way?"

    Nyx made a discomfited noise and scootched her rump further back under her mother's wing, safely out of harm's way. Twilight resisted the urge to snort in amusem*nt. "Wait; they're coming here? All of them?"

    "Yes, all of them,"Triton said. "They should start arriving sometime tomorrow, as scheduled."

    "Oh no," Nyx whimpered, burying her face in her forehooves. "I broke the world, and I broke Equestria!"

    Twilight put got to her feet and put Nyx on her back. "I think that's more than enough excitement for her for one day," she said, nesting the distraught filly between her wings.

    "Go on, Twilight," Celestia said sympathetically. "I'm sure we will have this sorted out soon enough." Twilight gave them all a shallow curtsy and turned to go.

    "Allow me to accompany you, Twilight Sparkle," Luna said suddenly. "I... feel a need for some rest from these affairs, myself."

    "Of course, Luna," Twilight said. The two departed the throne room side by side.

    Once they had departed, Celestia glanced at Triton out of the corner of her eye. "So they arrive tomorrow," she said. Triton made a noncommittal sound. "How... interesting that you arrived a full day ahead of them."

    "Well," the amphibious alicorn said. "Circ*mstances. Our thrones are scattered about the world, after all. Just coincidence that I arrived early."

    "Early enough to let us know of what the Council intends," Celestia noted. "To give us time to prepare."

    "....Maybe." Triton hedged.

    "And perhaps... to smooth things over between us? Assuage any hurt feelings that might arise from you being the bearer of bad news?"

    "...Somewhat." He dipped his head a bit. "And... to apologize for falling out of touch... for so long." Celestia's heart fluttered. That flutter faded fast at his next words. "--After all, our nations should strive to maintain cordial relations," he added hastily.

    "Yes," she said. "....Cordial." She stood and turned to regard the stained glass windows, hiding her disappointment. "Well. In the spirit of... cordiality... what will the kingdom of Atlantis seek from us?"

    "Though we do have a few islands to our name, my own kingdom is almost entirely beneath the waves," Triton said. "We suffered little damage or injury, nothing we could not quickly mend. But not all of us were so fortunate. The reason we did not come sooner was because we spent much of the last year rebuilding; rebuilding and arguing over how much to demand.

    "As the head of the Council, and leader among the nations of the Western Sea, I would be expected to place the weight of my vote with the best interests of all those so enjoined. And many are calling for... quite punitive measures. Some may even demand that the Sun and Moon be wrested away from you and your sister."

    Celestia chuckled ruefully. "They may find it more complicated a proposition than they imagine," she said. "Luna and I are not mere caretakers, as the unicorn ancients were. We are bonded to the Sun and Moon, on an intimate level. In the end I could not wrest away control of the Moon from Luna, even in her madness; I was forced to banish her into the moon and control it from without. We could no more "hand over" those two heavenly bodies than we could split them into pieces and share them around."

    "There are those on the Council who would not be deterred by that," Triton warned."The Gryphons, in particular, may see it as an opportunity for payback for the humiliation of the Gryphon wars. And there are others... I fear that many of them are going to demand their pound of flesh." He tried to let an politely aloof expression fall across his face. "I fear I must remain somewhat impassive, in the name of my kingdom."

    Celestia sighed, a sound full of melancholy, weary patience with the impatient and demanding world, and no little pining for the apparently oblivious stallion in front of her. "As it may be," she said. "Come, let me escort you to your guest chambers. May you and your entourage make yourselves at home, while you are here."

    Twilight and Luna had barely made it down the hall when they were accosted by five rather fretful looking mares. Rainbow Dash, Applejack, Fluttershy, Rarity and Pinkie, still in their finery, surrounded her and clamored for explanations about what happened.

    "What was that awful row out in the courtyard all about?" Rarity said, tossing her mane.

    "Yeah, grievances and petitions and reparations and all that junk," Rainbow Dash said. "I thought we came here and got all fru-frued up to welcome some foreign dignitary, not to listen to some, some fish-butt jerk throw a list of complaints in the Princesses' faces!"

    "Yeah, that King Triton feller sure seems to have a chip on his shoulder," Applejack said.

    "We're not... going to war, are we?" Fluttershy whispered, frightened.

    "No, no, of course not!" Twilight said. Fluttershy, she noted, wasn't the only one to sigh in relief. "But I'm afraid King Triton and the kingdom of Atlantis have some grievances against Equestria, and so do several others. And they're going to demand some sort of compensation." She looked over her shoulder at her daughter, who was hunched up in a ball on her back. "It seems Nightmare Moon's return had further reaching consequences than we realized." She gave the girls a quick condensed version of what King Triton had told them.

    "My word," Rarity said faintly at the description of what Nyx's reign over the sun had caused.

    "Wow!" Pinkie Pie said. "And I thought the Cutie Mark Crusaders caused a lot of damage when they blew up Applejack's barn!"

    " 'Cutie Mark Crusaders Industrial Chemists,' my eye," Applejack muttered. She was never gonna find another insurance company after that last payoff.

    "Please, girls," Twilight said. "I think Nyx has had enough for one day."

    "Ooo. Sorry, punkin," Applejack said, giving Nyx a pat. "Didn't mean to rub salt in the wound."

    "It's okay," Nyx mumbled. It certainly didn't sound it.

    "We would appreciate it if you five made yourselves available at the palace as much as possible for the nonce," Luna said. "The palace will provide ready transport from Ponyville. It will aid our cause before these other Principalities to have the best and brightest of our land on display before them."

    "Sure, no problem, Princess Luna," Rainbow Dash said. The others agreed readily.

    Rarity actually clapped her hooves in glee. "ooh, this gives me an opportunity to put some of my newest dress designs on display-- before royalty no less," she said. "Oooh, I hope I have enough outfits for the week.." she nibbled at a hoof worriedly.

    "And we certainly wouldn't want to leave you and Nyx alone to face this," Fluttershy said. The others nodded readily.

    Twilight gave her friends a nuzzle. "Thank you, girls," she said. "This means a lot to me. I've got to go now; after today I think Nyx and I need to retreat to our quarters and batten down the hatches for a while." The others smiled in understanding and let her go her way.

    Once they had shut the door of the observatory behind them, Twilight sagged with relief. Nyx made no move to leave her side. Immediately four white mares and a small purple dragon set upon them, cosseting and inquiring what was wrong. "Please, girls, Spike," Twilight said. "It's been a rough day..." once again she gave a brief breakdown of the disaster.

    "Wow," Spike said. "And I thought the Cutie Mark Crusaders took the cake when they flooded the Ponyville Salon trying to get surfing Cutie Marks." Nyx tried to glower at him but couldn't muster the enthusiasm.

    The Quartet gasped and clucked in sympathy. They'd heard most of it through the castle staff grapevine, but having it confirmed was dreadful. Not so say they'd been idle.

    "I've set out blankets and stacks of your favorite books by the couch," Spike said.

    "I've got a fire going," Snowcap said. "It's going to be chilly tonight."

    "And there are trays with yours and Nyx's favorite comfort foods," Cherry Blossom said. "List 127 A, section 12. Heavy on the chocolates."

    "And daffodil sandwiches and celery soup," Sea Foam said. Nyx smiled for the first time in hours as Sea Foam hustled her over to the sofa.

    "Thank you, girls," Twilight said sincerely. "Thank you, Spike." She looked back and saw Luna lingering at the doorway. "Is... something wrong Luna?"

    Luna looked surprisingly vulnerable. Twilight hadn't seen her looking that way since her very first Nightmare Night. "Mayhap..." Luna started. Stopped, and started again. "Could I perhaps... stay here with Nyx and thee? For a while?"

    Twilight got an inkling of what might be bothering her. "Of course, Luna," she said. "If you'll excuse me..." She trotted off to the bathroom, leaving Luna and Nyx alone.

    Once she was alone in the bathroom, Twilight let the rest of her mask slip. She regarded herself in the mirror. Her eyes had bags under them, and her mane was frayed around the edges. She looked haggard. Not until today had this particular harrowing truth about life as a princess sunk home: She was being judged. Always, being judged. Every mistake she made, any mistake she made, could not only be used against her, but against the entire land of Equestria. Every single pony could suffer, if she, Twilight Sparkle, made a single mistake.

    Twilight rested her head on the cool rim of the sink. How could she do this? How could she keep up a facade of perfection forever without turning into a hollow shell?Answer: she couldn't.

    Why had this fate landed on her shoulders?

    She took care of her brief toilette, and got ready to go back downstairs. There'd better be a ton of things smothered in chocolate down there waiting for her.

    Chapter 14

    Luna stepped delicately down into the sunken living room and took a seat on the couch next to Nyx. One of the Quartet whisked in with another tray of food, this one laid out with foods the servants in the castle had somehow learned were Luna's favorites, and whisked away again. Such were the mysterious ways of the Canterlot Palace staff.

    Nyx was already cocooned in an enormous, aptly-named comforter, and munching quietly on a daffodil sandwich.

    Luna tossed a down blanket over her own shoulders, picked up a pastry from her own tray (ah, a moon pie. The servants would have their little jokes...) and ate silently, watching the flames in the fireplace alongside her strange little miniature twin. After a moment of quiet, Nyx spoke up.

    "Thank you for sticking up for me."

    Luna looked at her. "When you yelled at King Triton for scaring me so bad."

    "Ah," was all Luna said.

    "Why'd you do it? I mean, you got awful mad."

    Luna thought about it while she chewed her marshmallowy treat. "Because... I think because he scared me, too."

    "What do you mean?" Nyx asked, taking another bite of her sandwich.

    Luna licked her lips. "Ever since you were... born, for lack of a better phrase," she said carefully, "I've always felt we were connected. That your little victories and troubles were mine too, in a way. We both even made the same mistakes. It's not surprising, after all; we were both one person, not that long ago. We are sisters, in a way." Nyx nodded. Luna pressed on.

    "When King Triton began describing all the destruction caused by your brief endless night--" she paused while Nyx cringed, and continued. "--For a brief terrible moment I... I thought it was my own terrible time of forcing Night upon the world he was speaking of. The terror, the horror of what I might have done to the world pierced me through my heart. Then in the next instant you cried out... and I remembered that he spoke of your time upon the dark throne, not mine." She picked up a mug of cocoa and took a sip. "For that brief moment, your pain was mine... I saw the world through your eyes. I could not let him hurt you so cavalierly without chastisem*nt."

    "Thank you," Nyx said simply.

    Luna rolled her eyes. "Triton never changes, it seems. For all his grace and charms and good looks, from time to time he says just the wrong thing to a mare."

    Nyx snorted and scowled into her soup. "Men," she said scathingly.

    Luna snerked, sending cocoa up her own nose. "Colt troubles?" she said, amused, wiping her dripping muzzle.

    Nyx shook her head. "Not me. But last week Truffle opened his big mouth and stuck his hoof in it. 'Gee, Sweetiebelle, you're not THAT fat...' " she mimicked. "It took us three days to convince Sweetie she wasn't some big fat pig and get her to eat ice cream again."

    Luna chortled. "Ouch." She shook her head. "From age to age, this remains the same: Colts are clueless." She gave a little hmph. "Even King Triton. How any stallion could remain oblivious after two millennia of somepony batting her eyelashes at him..."

    Nyx looked up. "Do you like him?"

    Luna looked startled. "Me? No. Though he is most fair to look at..." she sighed. "But no, he is not the colt for me."

    "Sooooo does Celestia like him?" Nyx grinned.

    Luna rolled her eyes. "Would that the ocean-born lunk saw what the mere filly could see," she said. "Mine sister hath done everything but paint "Wouldst thou be mine?" On her flank in neon green." She was rewarded for this jest with a gleeful giggle. "Would that I knew why such a flounder as he refuses to take the bait." The giggling redoubled.

    Nyx's giggling faded after a moment and she grew thoughtful. "Maybe he's just scared." Luna gave her a surprised look. Nyx went on. "I mean, grownups have all these rules about stuff. Even on how to have dinner." The filly reflected ruefully on the lessons she'd had from the Quartet over the past few days in table manners. Rarity had nothing on these four. "I mean, all those forks and spoons and little dishes and stuff..."

    The Princess of the Moon, born of a far simpler time when the most complicated choice was 'eat with hooves or without hooves' and the most complicated table manners were 'don't expectorate across the table', could only nod in agreement to that. "Strewth. Methinks sometimes I would rather sit there and go hungry than risk the wroth of the table steward by plucking up the wrong fork," she said sarcastically.

    "That's what I mean. Grownups have all these rules about everything. Especially royal grownups. About how to be friends, and not be friends, and how to ask someone to be your special somepony, and when, and when not to, and... And maybe he's just scared of breaking the wrong rule and messing everything up, and so he thinks it's better to just be polite and stay friends."

    Luna took another bite of moon pie and ruminated thoughtfully. "Since when do little fillies show so much wisdom of the world?" she muttered to herself.

    Nyx heard her and started. "I'm not wise," she said, her bell-like voice thick with self-derision. "I just ask stuff." She hunkered down in her fluffy blanket, snuggling it around herself.

    Luna regarded her with a half co*cked smile. She was tempted to point out that "asking stuff" was pretty much where you started with wisdom, but refrained. "Hm. Then let me ask 'stuff,' for once," Luna said. "What do you think my sister should do to gain this handsome thick-head's attention?"

    "She should just kiss him," Nyx said bluntly. Luna's eyebrows shot up. Nyx shrugged."It worked on Rumble," she said... blushing just a little bit.

    "Oh, Rumble?" Luna purred in amusem*nt. "Tell us more."

    "Just a pegasus boy in my class," Nyx said. The faint blush grew. "He was all sad and thought I wouldn't want to dance with him, so I kissed him on the cheek...." She smiled to herself. The memory still made her stomach do flip flops.

    Luna made an "aaaaah" sound, smirking. "And did he dance with you?" Nyx just curled up, blushing. Luna chuckled. "And you really think that would work with Celestia. Just walk up to Triton: 'Oh, good morrow, your Majesty..." she pretended to throw her hooves around an invisible somepony and made wet kissing noises.

    Nyx stifled her giggles with a hoof. "It'd get my attention," she said. "I could just see the look on everypony's faces if she did that tomorrow."

    Luna laughed. "Oh fair Triton, I would be thine!" She swooned and batted her lashes. She made a sound like a plumber's helper unclogging a drain.

    Nyx rolled with laughter. Getting into the spirit of things, picked up a pillow off the couch. She held it up and shook it back and forth, imitating the sea king's voice in a deep comical bass. "Oh my, Princess Celestia, this is so sudden!" She held the pillow aside and put a hoof to her forehead, switching to a falsetto for the Sun Princess. "Yes, it's true! My passion for you can be hidden no more! Take me away from all this! We will live together under the sea and have lots of little guppy-corns together!" She grabbed the pillow in a passionate embrace. "Mwah mwah mwah mwah..."

    A maternal shadow fell over the couch. Nyx froze. and looked up to see Twilight standing there, giving her The Look. "Oh poop."

    Luna was nearly choking with laughter. She waved to Twilight. "Tis but a jest, Twilight," she said. "No harm done-- hee hee hee hee!"

    Twilight snorted and rolled her eyes. "I see where she gets it from," she quipped, taking a seat on the sofa. "Please tell me there's something decadent on these trays... ahh, yesss." She spotted the triple-dipped chocolate strawberries and pulled the bowl to her. "I so need this..."

    Nyx sobered. "This is going to be bad, isn't it," she said.

    Twilight looked at her. "I won't lie, sweetie," she said. "It's going to be a bumpy ride before this is all over. But it will be over, eventually." she smiled. "We just have to have a little faith. Maker willing, we'll be able to fix this problem and make it through." She bit into a chocolate and rolled her eyes in bliss. "MMM. For now, let's just forget about our troubles for a little while. No sense in worrying about it, right?"

    Luna regarded her in stunned surprise. This was the same mare who'd popped every spring in her clock over a late homework assignment? "Thou hast most certainly changed since we first met, Twilight Sparkle," she said.

    "Not all that much," Twilight said drolly. "But the therapist has helped a lot." And being a mother, you learn to hold off panic attacks when you absolutely have to, she thought to herself as she smoothed Nyx's mane. Nothing forces you to face your weaknesses like having to be strong for somepony else. "Granted, I'll probably have a big old hissy fit later on. But not right now."

    They chatted by the fire and indulged in treats and sweets. Twilight read to Nyx from her favorite storybook, till the filly turned dozy and huddled down in her blanket cocoon, drifting off to sleep.

    Luna sipped her cocoa and looked up at Twilight. "I thank thee for letting me... indulge in the comfort of thy family presence," she said.

    "Not a problem, Luna," Twilight said. "We're kind of family anyway. All things considered." She turned thoughtful. "I suppose there are some things troubling you," she said. It was a statement, not a question.

    Luna smiled wanly. "Little Nyx is not the only one who is to be called on the carpet for what transpired," she said. "Alas, we all here are, I think the phrase is 'in the same boat.' " Tentatively she reached out and nuzzled the little filly's mane. "So strange. Is this what it feels like to be a big sister?"

    "I don't know," Twilight admitted. "But it'll do for now."

    The delegates began arriving the next morning. Nyx was up early, watching them arrive from the highest window of the observatory. Spike and Peewee were there with her, watching too... Bright Eyes as well. They had a clear view of the entire palace, and all of Canterlot below.

    The assembly was actually in two parts: emissaries from each of the island nations of the Western Sea, petitioning for reparations from the kingdom of Equestria, and the Council itself.There seemed to be dozens of the lesser nations, but it was the members of the Council that stole the show. Some came alone. Some were rulers of nations of their own. But they all made an impression.

    The first to arrive, shortly after the sunrise, was the ki-rin. He looked something like a unicorn, but a more slender, like a deer. He had a long feathery coat that came almost a mane around his shoulders, and shining scales down his sides and flanks. Instead of a horn he had a single gleaming antler rising up from his head. He arrived in a beautiful flying pagoda, wrought in royal red and gold, suspended in the air by what looked like five enormous paper lanterns-- one at each corner and a fifth larger one at the peak of the roof. The graceful, deer-like creature disembarked on a tiny private cloud, its golden hooves folded under it, and floated into the castle, followed by several slightly smaller versions of its kind. They walked on the ground like normal, but they also lacked the golden hooves of their leader. Curious.

    Second were the gryphons. They flew in on a more typical airship, but they made up for it when they disembarked. Not waiting for the ship to land, they leapt off and flew to the front gate in formation. The flanking guards touched down, and the delegate and what looked to be his family touched down on the red carpet between them. Nyx gasped in surprise; the delegate and his family were recognizable by their golden pelts, white heads, tufted ears... and the writhing serpents they had instead of tails. They strode inside, haughty as could be.

    Third to arrive was a sea serpent, glistening snow white and enormously long. Rather than by air, this one arrived by water. It swam up the waterfall and slithered into the palace, frost trailing in the air behind it.

    Then, close to noon, came the Firebird. At first Nyx thought it was a strange cloud, white with a glowing heart. Then the cloud drew nearer, and she saw what she thought was a flock of tropical birds nesting on the top of the clouds. In the center was a bird, the size of a gryphon, with glowing feathers. "Wow, is that a phoenix?" Bright Eyes said. "But it's way too big..."

    The cloud drew nearer and floated down to the courtyard... surprise upon surprise, the top of the cloud was an arboretum, covered with plants, fountains and butterflies. And the great bird at the center was no phoenix. It was a gorgeous crested bird, with the sleek form of a bird of prey and the plumage of a peaco*ck that glowed in all the colors of the rainbow. The bird's plumage went from brilliant yellow at the beak, fading to gold, then sunset orange, then ember red, cooling to twilight purple and then to glowing ocean blue, then emerald, then out to the trailing peaco*ck tail where it blossomed again into a dazzling kaleidoscope. Birds of every type held court around it.

    Every bird in Canterlot seemed to be fascinated with it. For that matter, everything with wings seemed fascinated with it; the pegasi were all but trailing along in its wake, slack jawed. Even Nyx, up in her tower, felt the strange allure of the creature. Peewee, for his part, took one look and gave a surprisingly fangirlish squeak before toppling off Spike's shoulder in a faint. "Wow, that must be a Firebird," Spike said, picking the baby phoenix up off the floor.

    "Isn't a phoenix a fire bird?" Nyx asked.

    "No, no, they're two different things," Spike said. "A Firebird is, well, it's sort of the archetypical bird. Uh, you know what an archetype is, right?" Nyx nodded. Her birthday presents had included an enormous dictionary. She still blushed when she remembered how she got 'hypothesis,' 'hypotenuse', and 'hippopotamus' mixed up..."Well, that's what a Firebird is. It's like, the bird of all birds. And it's really really magical. Anything with feathers is tied to it in a way." He paused. "And platypuses too, which is kind of funny, but there you have it."

    "Is that why all the pegasi are acting weird around it?" Bright Eyes said, as the glowing bird swept into the castle.

    "Yeah, there's enough bird in pegasi that they can feel it's presence," Spike said. "Nyx is probably feeling the pull too."

    "Kind of," Nyx admitted. "It's like..." she tapped her hoof to her chin, thinking of a simile. "Kind of like if Princess Celestia and Sapphire Shores walked into the room at the same time."

    The next to arrive was a dragon. She flew down out of a thunderhead, a long sinuous streak of molten red and fire yellow. She had no wings, but instead undulated through the skies as a sea serpent would swim through the waves. "Who is that?" Spike wondered.

    The she-dragon landed in the courtyard in a swirl of scales and flame. "Let the party commence! Pele', mistress of earthquakes and volcanoes, has arrived!" she boomed in a voice that had everypony clear up to Nyx's tower clapping their hooves and other various limbs to their ears.

    "Hey, thanks for that little infodump there," Spike muttered, wiggling a claw in his earhole. "Sheesh." With a thundering chuckle the dragoness went on inside.

    There were more delegates and petitioners arriving. The selkies arrived. King Triton was right, they did look sort of like monkeys on land, with clever paws and little round bellies. They were terribly cute.There was another group of pony islanders, with fins instead of tails. A flock of flutterponies. A group of creatures that looked like they were carved from stone; they seemed to be all face and forehead, with squat bodies and stubby arms and legs...

    Nyx grew weary of watching the arrivals and went back down into the observatory. This wasn't the big big meeting today; today everypony was just arriving, so Celestia and Luna and Mom were organizing a sort of welcoming dinner, settling everyone in, extending hospitality... trying to get on everypony's good side before the real negotiations got underway. After Nyx's panic attack, they had kept Nyx out of the welcoming committee this time to avoid any scenes. Mom said they wanted to hold off bringing her forward till they had tested the waters, whatever that meant.

    Of course this meant she had to sit here in the observatory with Spike and Bright Eyes and Peewee, waiting for the grownups to summon them down to the big fancy 'party' while her stomach did flip-flops. And not the happy kind, either.

    The rest of the day crawled by. Nyx was so nervous she couldn't eat her lunch. She just picked at the cucumber sandwiches. The afternoon was spent by the Quartet grooming the three children for a formal appearance. They sat around, stiff and uncomfortable in their formal dress and fidgeted while they waited for the boom to drop.

    After a small eternity, there was a knock at the front door. Sea Foam opened it: it was Sundiver and Lightning Blitz.They bowed formally. "The Princesses request the presence of the Crystal Champion Spike, Crystal Champion Bright Eyes, and Princess Nyx Sparkle," Lightning Blitz said.

    Nyx gulped and looked at the others. "Well. This is it," she said. They trooped out, flanked by the two pegasus guards, and headed for the royal soiree.

    Chapter 15

    Despite everything, the running of a nation did not cease.The day to day functions of the nation still needed overseeing. For the sake of expediency Celestia had taken over the duty of welcoming and quartering the delegates and petitioners as they arrived, while Luna and Twilight had been entrusted with the bureaucratic tasks of the day. So the duties of the Princesses were carried out and proceeded as they always had:

    As grinding, repetitive, pointless drudgery. Interspersed, of course, with occasional heaps of pointless stupidity.

    When Twilight had taken Nyx with her, the filly had undoubtedly livened up the day. This time around, Twilight was not spared any of the charms of the job at hand. There were at least twice as many petitioners as before for the Dawn Court and they were not happy at all (though for that point, was anybody who came to petition the Court ever going to be happy?), most of them nobility having a hissy about the sudden influx of foreign leaders into the capital. The castle staff were frantic. The guard were going ballistic. The mailroom was bursting at the seams. It seemed as if the arrival of the Council, and the arising of a situation that could mean decisions that altered the very fate of the world, had provoked every pony within a thousand miles to suddenly redouble the number of trivialities with which to bother the Triarchy. Apparently the middle of a national crisis was the absolute perfect time to bring up a squabble about property boundaries in someone's hobby farm or possession of contested family crests, or try to weasel some 'inconsequential' law through.

    After about three hours of such tomfoolery, Twilight had had it. Looking over at Luna, she could see that she was at the end of her tether as well. Her eye was twitching violently. Twilight leaned over to her to say something, but Luna beat her to the punch. "Twilight," she said quietly. "I cannot... deal with this much more."

    "That makes two of us," Twilight groaned, as another pile of letters and documents landed next to her.

    "I suspect you know what I wish to do," the moon princess said through clenched teeth. "But I dare not..."

    Twilight thought it over. "Luna? Okay, I'm probably about to make a horrible mess--"

    "Compared to Night Eternal?" Luna said rhetorically.

    "--but if I'm a real princess... today... just this once... can I swing the Big Hammer?" A manic gleam shone deep in her eye. "Just once."

    Luna thought it over as somepony before them blathered on. "Swing away," she said finally. "You have all our authority, and my full permission. Damn the thunderheads, full speed ahead."

    Twilight got to her hooves. "ATTENTION!" The Royal Voice rang off the ceiling. Courtiers, secretaries, guards, nobles, commoners, all of them froze in their tracks. The courtier currently talking stammered to silence.

    "Now hear this; I have HAD IT!" She marched to the front of the dais. "Right now, right this very minute, our nation is undergoing a crisis which may very well affect the entire world. Neither Celestia, Luna, nor I-- nor anypony else in this kingdom-- has time for this nonsense!

    "I don't know what you are all thinking. I don't know whether you thought that an inexperienced new Princess would be easy to buffalo, or that we would be distracted by the crisis at hand, or that we would be intimidated due to fear of "public opinion," which is just another word for what your friends in the press would print about us. Allow me to set you straight on that last one by the bye. I am Princess Twilight Sparkle of the Sparkle clan, lawful ruler of Equestria, full member of the Triarchy and your Princess. I don't care what the reporters say about me. I EAT REPORTERS AND CRAP EDITORS!

    "So we're going to cut to the chase on all your decrees, requests, bills, and petitions. Are you wanting to raise or add a tax? FORGET IT! The average Equestrian pays too much taxes as it is. And that goes for any fees, fines, bills, tags, licenses or any other cute euphemisms you may have devised to call your "tax" and to pretend you're not trying to separate the Equestrian from his hard earned bits for your own benefit.

    "Are you wanting money from the public coffers to make a memorial park, plaque, obelisk, edifice or statue, particularly to yourself? FORGET IT! If the people in your hometowns wish to sponsor such a thing, then allow them to do it, and raise the money themselves. You're not getting a plugged bit of taxpayer money for your pet project.

    "Are you a politician wanting to rezone something? FORGET IT! The lines can stay where they darned well are. We're not here to facilitate your gerrymandering or property theft.

    "Are you here to squabble about the granting or removal of some vaporous honorary family title? GET OUT OF HERE.

    "In short, unless not hearing your petition or signing that paper means somepony ends up homeless, hospitalized, in prison or DEAD,LEAVE NOW!!

    "GUARDS! Fetch a trash can and bring it in here. A BIG one! I expect it to be full of wasted paper shortly."

    A pair of unicorn guards galloped off and shortly returned with a barrel bin, which they set on the red carpet at the foot of the throne. As predicted, it quickly filled. A full two-thirds of the petitioners meekly dumped their papers in the can straight away. A full third of the remainder stayed the course only to see their carefully worded bills and screeds follow it. More barrels were fetched and the piles of paperwork were rapidly winnowed.Soon the crowds were down to a bare minimum of subjects with genuine problems.

    Even then, it was well past noon before the last of it was cleared away. Luna and Twilight held their poise till the throne room doors boomed shut, then they sagged in their thrones in relief. Twilight looked at Luna, dazed. She let out an over wrought giggle. "Is it bad that I enjoyed doing that?" she said weakly.

    Luna co*cked a brow.

    Twilight's grin fell off her face. "You're right. I've set off a bomb, I just know it," she said. "All those courtiers and politicians and---"

    "One thing I would say to thee, Princess Twilight, on how thou hast conducted thyself here..." Luna said.

    Twilight cringed a bit. "Yes?"

    Luna leaned against her. "I have so wanted to do that, so badly, ever since I got back," she moaned.

    Twilight laughed awkwardly. "But... what of the repercussions--"

    Luna waved a hoof. "The Powers That Be have descended upon us to chastise us, and our entire nation, for the debacle of Nightmare Moon," she said. "Any mayhem tis brought about by today, no matter how drastic, will be nothing next to it... and will be irrelevant when all is said and done. One way or the other," she added somewhat grimly.

    Twilight sighed. "Even after kicking every crooked double dealer and self-serving time waster out the doors, we still had so many ponies." She waved her forehooves in desperation. "What is wrong with Equestria? Don't we have courts of law? Can't the ponies handle these things themselves?"

    Luna got to her feet. Her eyes were downcast. "So long as they have a Princess, no." She started down the steps of the dais. Surprised and confused by her words, Twilight followed.

    "What do you mean?" Twilight said.

    Luna smiled as she walked to the Queen's exit. "Twilight, we have long striven to make Equestria a nation ruled by law, by justice, by harmony-- rather than ruled by kings and queens. But so long as there is a king or queen... or a princess... the law, in truth, means naught. For there will always be one person whom they can go to, who can subvert the law for their favor. As many here this very day intended." She frowned. "My sister and I, when we began, never wished to rule over ponies."

    A puzzled Twilight fell in beside her as they passed through the door and into the hallway to the royal quarters. "But... you became Nightmare Moon because you wanted..."

    "Because I wanted their love and respect," Luna reminded her. "Much as any mother wants the love and respect of her children. But no sane mother wishes to rule over her children's lives forever. It is not wise, nor healthy."

    Twilight found herself with much to ponder. Every little filly wants to be a princess. Or that's what they think. What they really want is to be loved like a princess. They would never want the burdens of ruling, and only the sick and unhealthy would want the power over others. Just like Nyx found herself hating the throne when she finally gained it. Just like I...

    Just like I never wanted to be a ruler, either.

    It was a terrible realization, and a terrible time to have it. Too late, far too late, to change anything anyway. She shelved the thought immediately, closed it off and boxed it away. Equestria needed Princess Twilight Sparkle now. She couldn't ask for her old life back.

    How much of it did she have left?

    "We have little time," Luna said. "Celestia hosts a... I hesitate to call it a 'party'... a soiree for the gathered members of the Council, and the leaders of the kingdoms of the Western Sea, to try and soothe calmed nerves and reacquaint old faces. We must make haste to prepare, and join her there. It is vital to meet the Council face to face."

    "So that they see us as real ponies, not just faceless figures behind their troubles," Twilight concluded for her.

    Luna nodded. "Precisely. Come; my hoofmaids shall prepare us both." She spread her wings and went aloft; after a moment's hesitation Twilight followed. They landed on the balcony of Luna's tower. Luna strode in first. "Nocturne! Sonnet! Silkwing! Attend us!"

    The inside of Luna's quarters was dimly lit, and decorated heavily with shades of indigo and purple and the glitter of points of diamond. Three thestral mares strode out of the shadows and set to grooming and preparing their Princesses.

    They worked swiftly and in almost total silence, gentle hooves and wings swiftly grooming manes and coats back to pristine perfection, daubing on just a touch of makeup, polishing and re-applying the royal torcs, boots and tiaras. The last to be reapplied was Twilight's engagement ring, sparkling like a tiny star.

    "When will you be returning to the Castle of the Moon?" Twilight asked Luna, as one of the petite batponies touched up her cheeks with a faint touch of rouge.

    Luna sighed. "Soon, I hope," she said. "Tis still a strenuous process, shifting the trains of bureaucracy so that they roll aright to my proper door. I have had the castle but a year, and I find I miss it, and the warmth of Ponyville about it, most sore, every single day I am parted."

    "Me too," Twilight said, thinking longingly of her home back at the Golden Oaks library.

    The three batponies disappeared again with smiles and whispered reassurances trailing behind them. Luna and Twilight looked at each other, took a deep breath, and headed for the door.

    They were met outside by a sight that warmed Twilight's heart. Nyx, Spike, and a surprise, Bright Eyes stood there. Nyx was in her miniature royal regalia, the tiny tiara, peytral and hoofshoes gleaming, her mane and tail brushed to perfection and her coat glossy black. Spike and Bright Eyes stood on either side of her... wearing miniature versions of the uniform of the Crystal Empire royal guard. For a finishing touch, Peewee was perched on Spike's left epaulette, glowing softly.

    Standing directly behind them was Ink Spot. He was dressed in a uniform that... Twilight didn't quite recognize. It was white with gold trim on one half, midnight blue with silver on the other, and had a high stiff collar, and a jewel-pommeled sword in a scabbard hanging off his left hip whose tip nearly dragged the ground. He flushed and smiled when he saw Twilight step through the door.

    They bowed carefully to both Luna and Twilight. "Good evening your highnesses," they recited carefully.

    Twilight happily nuzzled all of them in greeting... lingering a bit more on Ink Spot for obvious reasons. "I know I asked you to all dress formally, but what's this?"

    "Our uniforms arrived in the mail," Spike said. "Cadence and Shining Armor have been saying that it wasn't right that the Crystal Champions didn't have proper dress wear."

    "And Celestia is to account for this," Ink Spot said, smiling wryly and tugging at his collar a bit with his magic.

    "The garb of a Knight of the Realm!" Luna said in delight, recognizing it immediately. "I have not seen such since... well, before," she finished with a cough.

    "Celestia said that since I was knighted, I might as well dress the part," he said. It was true. Celestia had been vividly amused by Ink Spot's (somewhat) heroic charge to Twilight Sparkle's rescue, and had knighted him the very next day, on the grounds that he had selflessly come to the defense of one of the nation's Princesses. He was now a full Knight of the Realm, and baron over a small uninhabited island in the middle of a river someplace. Celestia had thought it a marvelous jest and a perfect note of whimsy.(1)

    "Milady." Ink Spot dipped his head in a bow. "Shall we proceed to the festivities?"

    Twilight felt a small tidbit of happiness melt and spread inside her like warm chocolate. "Indeed we shall," she said, falling in beside him.

    Their guards-- Lightning Blitz and Sundiver, most surely-- fell in behind them. Luna followed after, her own two Lunar Guards at her flanks.

    The enormous double doors to the ballroom loomed ahead. They opened silently, spilling light and sound out into the hall. Twilight took a deep breath and held it inside her as they made their way into the welcoming gala.They may have taken away much, she thought, his warm side pressing into hers, her adopted daughter and son trotting ahead. But I will always still have this.

    1) The fact that it completely demolished any complaints that Twilight was engaged to a "commoner" was purely coincidental, she was sure.

    Chapter 16

    There were times when just seeing Twilight Sparkle made Ink Spot smile. There were times when she made him laugh. There were times when she made him feel flustered, or proud, or like an awkward little colt going through his first crush.

    Then there were the times like this that she simply took his breath away.

    The moment the door to Princess Luna's chambers opened and she appeared, he was left speechless. No royal gown, no fancy jewelry other than her tiara, peytral and shoes... and that crude, laughable engagement ring-- he was going to get her a better ring, a perfect ring, he swore it, if he ever got that one away from her-- No heavy makeup, no mane and tail 'do. just her. Radiant. Beautiful. Perfect.

    All he could do was act the fool and try to be courtly. "Milady." Ink Spot dipped his head in a bow. "Shall we proceed to the festivities?"

    Her smile made his clumsy efforts seem worth it. "Indeed we shall," she said, falling in beside him. Nyx fell in at his other side. Together with their entourage, they walked serenely through the halls of the great palace to the royal ballroom.

    They reached the double doors all too soon.

    The doors swung wide, spilling light and sound into the hallway. He felt the two most important mares in his life tense up beside him. He gave the younger one a comforting nudge and whispered in the older one's ear. "Just breathe." She nodded, took a deep breath, and let it out.

    They stepped inside.

    "Presenting their Highnesses, Princess Luna of Equestria, Princess Twilight Sparkle of Equestria, And Princess Nyx Sparkle of Equestria, daughter of Twilight Sparkle--" the doorpony bellowed, his mustache puffing in the wind of his own voice.

    Well that went smoothly, Twilight thought.

    "--formerly known as Queen Nightmare Moon!"

    Sonuva-- Twilight barely restrained herself from magically throttling the stallion. It was too late anyway. Every eye in the room was now on them, and murmurs of confusion, surprise, and disbelief were spreading through the crowd like ripples from a stone in a millpond.

    "And their escorts, Sir Ink Spot of Red Rock Island; Sir Spike of Ponyville, Champion of the Crystal Empire; and Sir Bright Eyes of Ponyville, Champion of the Crystal Empire!" The doorpony went on. There was an indignant cheep. The doorpony looked at his notes. "...And Peewee," he added.

    Nyx gulped at all the eyes suddenly looking her way. What were they all murmuring? Spike gave her a subtle thumbs-up. Reassured, she looked the other way hoping for a confidence booster from Bright Eyes--- there was nothing but an empty space next to her. It took her a second to realize what happened. She gave the empty air a fierce elbow poke. There was an "oof" and Bright Eyes flickered back into existence. "Don't do that to me!" she whispered fiercely.

    "Sorry." Bright Eyes whispered back, rubbing his side sheepishly. "Are you sure you want me to be your escort?" he said plaintively. "I mean, I thought you liked Rumble--"

    "He couldn't be here," Nyx said, disappointed. "But you're my friend," she hastened to add. "I really really just need somepony to be here..." she trailed off, biting her lip and looking at him.

    Bright Eyes made a little grumbling noise. "Fiiiine," he said. "But I hate crowds and being stared at...you know that."

    "Your own fault for looking like a unicorn shaped disco ball," Spike commented. Bright Eyes stuck out his tongue, but refrained from blowing a raspberry. They were in polite company after all.

    Twilight blew out the breath she had been holding. "Come on, everyone," she said. "Let's go mingle. Remember, best hoof forward." They moved forward into the crowd.

    All of them quickly forgot their nervousness; They were too busy being amazed.

    The attendees of this little gathering, as fascinating as they had seemed when first seen arriving, were even more exotic up close. Everywhere they looked was something strange and new; beings they had only read of in wild fairy tales or obscure texts or had never even heard of at all as the guests pressed in.

    "We extend our greetings, and thank you for our welcome!"

    "Yes!"

    "Indeed, thank you."

    Twilight found herself addressing.... a cloud of giant butterflies? She had to back up a step to realize she was being greeted by a flock of flutterponies. They fluttered (what else?) before her, a cloud of riotous color, each tiny pony no bigger than the frog of her hoof...not counting the wings, that was. An orange mare with a gold mane and purple wings was at the forefront. Twilight saw a wee sparkling crown on her head, and quickly gave a curtsey. "Queen Nymphalida, a pleasure to meet you."

    The Queen of Flutterpony Island looked pleased that she was recognized. Her antennae dipped in acknowledgement of the courtesy. "I am sure the pleasure is less than it would be, given the circ*mstances," she said. "But the sentiment is welcome." She smiled in amusem*nt. "I take it from your expressions that our kind are not common here in Equestria?" Twilight heard Ink Spot's jaw click shut.

    "Forgive us for staring," Twilight said hastily. "there are very few of the Flutterponies here in Equestria, though I do believe there is a colony living in Hollow Shades."

    "We are not offended," Queen Nymphalida assured her. "I am sure more than a few are preening at the attention." A chorus of giggles echoed from the cloud of flutterponies behind her.

    "Not without just cause," Ink Spot said gallantly. "Your entourage is quite lovely." Fairy-voiced titters and thank yous rained down from the flutterponies.

    "And... quite large," Twilight couldn't help adding, looking up at the fluttering flock. It reached clear to the ceiling.

    "A necessity," Queen Nymphalida said with a sigh. "We flutterponies cast magic much as pegasi, unicorns and alicorns do, but greatly diminished. We work our magic best in concert. A lone flutterpony could never travel the distance from our island, but a few hundred of us flying together can traverse the distance easily."

    Twilight made a sound of comprehension and nodded. "We are familiar with your cousins, the Breezies, and their difficulties traveling--"

    Nymphalida gave a surprisingly loud snort. "Pardon me... but the Breezies? Those overly frail things?" She tittered. "My dear, they are most certainly not kin to us." The flock of flutterponies tittered and giggled as well.

    "I meant no insult--" Twilight said hastily, but Nymphalida waved her off. "It's not an uncommon mistake," she said. "But really, if we are their kin then it is at quite a remove. We are far more native to this plane of existence than they-- and far hardier, thank goodness. " She shook her head." Poor things. They would not interact with our world at all, were it not for their precious pollen plants dying out in their little pocket realm, and needing to harvest from our own."

    Twilight nodded. The Flutterponies were a good bit larger than the wispish Breezies, and had much stronger and more vividly colorful wings. They did not drift helplessly with every zephyr, either, and had no need of breezes to power their magic. Any resemblance between the two was mostly a matter of perspective; Side by side they would resemble the Breezies as much as a Pegasus would resemble Rarity with her butterfly wings.

    Nyx found herself facing a smallish flutterpony who'd dropped out of the flock to hover in front of her. She was a powder blue pony with a yellow mane and pale blue, almost glassy-clear wings. "Hello!" she said. "I'm Lycaenida... but you can call me Gossamer. Who are you?"

    Nyx smiled, entranced. "I'm Nyx," she said. "Um, Princess Nyx now, I think. But... just call me Nyx."

    "Wow, you're different from the other big ponies," Gossamer said. "Not just the little big ponies, or the big big ponies, but all the big ponies. Even the big alicorn ponies. I mean your eyes are different, they're pretty but they're pretty like a cat's, with funny pupils and I don't think I've ever seen a pony with a black coat, not that I've seen a lot of big ponies or small ponies either but I've still never seen a pony with a black coat or cat eyes well except those ones with bat wings with Princess Luna except they're more dark grey too so you're not really like them either... why is that?"

    Nyx backed up a step, blinking under the verbal barrage. It was like being confronted by a very tiny, very high-pitched Pinkie Pie. "Um, well, it's kind of a long story," she said.

    "She used to be Nightmare Moon," Spike interjected.

    "Spike--!" Nyx hissed.

    "What, it's not like it's a big secret," Spike said.

    Gossamer made an "OoooOOooo" sound. "Oh so you're the Princess who messed up the sun and stuff for a while," she said. "Did you try and run it without getting your mother's permission first or something?"

    "Considering what she did to Shining Armor's washing machine, that's actually a pretty good guess," Spike snarked. Nyx elbowed him. Hard.

    "Oh well anyway that explains why you have different eyes and... no wait that doesn't explain anything.. why did Nightmare Moon have those eyes, either, anyway?"

    Nyx regarded the tiny flutterpony. "Um, aren't you more worried about, um, well, the whole unending day, storm, thing?" Nyx waved her hoof in the air?

    Gossamer hovered in midair, her wide eyes blinking, perplexed. "Oh, you mean that Day that Would Not End thing?" She made a phsssst sound. "That's grownup stuff." For the first time Nyx realized that Gossamer was actually a filly, not a full-grown mare. "And it's all done and over with anyway. Yeah, it was horrible hot for a while and there were a lot of storms for awhile too but it's all over with, right? Ooh, is there a buffet?" She said, darting up and looking about. "I think all this fuss is silly but I love traveling here, the food is sooooo good-- oh there it is! I hope they have potato fries! I love potato fries," she said, rubbing her tiny belly and licking her lips.

    "Potato fries?" Nyx said.

    "Like hayfries, but with potatoes," Spike said.

    "Yeah, all starchy and greasy and salty and goooooood," Gossamer said. "You know we have tons of fruit and nectar back on Flutterpony Island? Hundreds of kinds. It-- gets-- OLD. Oh, there it is!" She pointed and fluttered off through the crowd. Then she flew back, hooves on her hips. "Well come on!" And zipped off again.

    Nyx looped up at her mother and pointed after the flutterpony. "Um, mom...?"

    "Go on," Twilight tittered. "Sundiver, if you would?" The guardpony nodded and trotted off after Nyx.

    "You'll have to pardon my subjects," Nymphalida said. "They tend to be, well, flighty. If you'll pardon the pun." It was apparently true; her 'entourage' was splitting up into clumps of four or five and wandering off in every direction after whatever had entranced or distracted them for the moment. "I hope we will get another chance to speak. But... royal duty calls, one supposes... your Highnesses..." And she was off, fluttering off to greet another dignitary now surrounded by curious eyes and gaudy wings.

    "A most charming people, if lacking in gravitas," Luna murmured. "They have a simple governance; the Queen is simply the one with the longest attention span."

    "Should we go find Celestia?" Twilight said. It was an extraordinary experience being in a room where the Princess of the Sun didn't stand out from the crowd.

    "Nay. Methinks our interests would be better served if we, ah, 'mingle,' " Luna said. "Separate and move amongst them, rather than huddle in one corner all together."

    "Ah, divide and conquer, then?" Ink Spot said.

    "Yeah, but who's dividing whom?" Twilight muttered skittishly.

    "Courage, Princess Twilight," Luna said into her ear. "Your shining knight doth stand at your side, does he not?" She chuckled at the blush that spread over the younger alicorn's face. "For the nonce, I leave thee. I see old acquaintances I would renew." With that, the lunar princess walked off.

    "Well, here we go," Twilight mumbled.

    Ink Spot nuzzled her ear. "I'm right here beside you," he said.

    There was a sound of something clearing its throat. The two of them turned around to find themselves facing a sea serpent's head the size of a wagon. The glimmering white creature had stooped down till its long fu-manchu beard and mustache trailed on the floor. "Ah,Svellnadr, Emissary Politic of the great northern serpent Iormungand, Guardian of Niflheim and Keeper of the North Star," he said, introducing himself. "Greetings, on behalf of my master." His voice was a mild baritone. Twilight could smell sea salt and a faint hint of seaweed on his breath.

    "Hoo boy," Twilight squeaked. "Ahee, um, that is to say, um, welcome." She peered around, yet saw no more enormous serpents in the room. "Is he about?"

    The white sea serpent smiled politely. "I am afraid that, unlike many here, my master is unable to attend in person," he said. "Through me, however, he is able to see and hear all that shall go on these few days, and participate as well." He tapped the enormous sapphire on his brow by way of explanation.

    Twilight peered closer. "Oh, a two-way communicator?"

    "Of sorts."

    "If it's not impolite, may I ask why he is unable to attend?" Twilight said. Careful, you don't want to offend...

    Sevllnadr opened his mouth to speak, but before he could respond his head twitched to the side and a cavernous baritone voice echoed out of his mouth. "Because, child, I am far too old and large to enter your palace," the voice said. "I could coil about the base of the very mountain it stands upon."

    "Oh my!" Twilight curtseyed. "Iormungand, I presume?"

    "In the voice, if not the flesh," the voice intoned. "Do not be alarmed, I am not offended." The voice sounded vaguely amused. "I know very well that I do not travel well. Besides, I could not leave my post."

    "Your post, sir?" Ink Spot said.

    "Niflheim," the voice explained. "A prison much like your Tartarus, for the more dread monsters that once roamed this world. My coils surround its entrance, and contain the evils therein."

    "Fascinating," Twilight said, her eyes starting to twinkle. "I would love to hear more about it."

    The youngsters, in the meanwhile, had made their way to the buffet table. There were no potato fries, alas, but Gossamer quickly made the acquaintance of the Blooming Onion. The flutterpony filly was in raptures. Spike, Nyx and Bright Eyes watched openmouthed as she devastated the deep-fried floral-cut onion display like an airborne piranha. She didn't stop until there was nothing left but crumbs. She sat in the now-empty dipping bowl and patted her distended belly. "That," she said with a burp and a contented sigh, "was perfect."

    "She must burn calories like Spike burns scrolls," Nyx murmured.

    A chortle echoed behind them. They turned to find themselves facing a ki-rin... or rather, the low-flying, silvery cloud he rode. He was a deer-like creature, with long silky red fur that curled in a mane around his shoulders and in fetlocks around his golden hooves. Silvery scales, like those of a dragon or fish, coated his neck and limbs, disappearing under his loose silk robe. He had a long, drooping brows and silver mustache. His eyes were dark brown, like warm chocolate. "Ah, apologies," he said, lowering the altitude a bit, till he was at a more amicable speaking height. "Greetings young ones. I am Emperor Zheng He of Neighpon, land of the ki-rin, master of the Aurora."

    The foals and dragonling took the hint and bowed. "Princess Nyx of Equestria, Crystal Champion Spike of Equestria, Crystal Champion Bright Eyes of the Crystal Empire," Spike said, speaking for them all.

    The deer-like creature smiled enigmatically. "Such hefty titles for ones of such youth," he said.

    "Believe me, we earned them," Spike said sincerely.

    Nyx felt herself fidgeting under the ki-rin's steady gaze. This was so awkward. She was the bad pony here. What was she supposed to say? How was she supposed to act? Should she use that speech that Mom made her memorize before they came? "Um... Master of the Aurora?"

    The ki-rin's eyes crinkled in a smile. "Of the electromagnetic field that surrounds our world, actually," he said. "Though the Aurora is part of that. It is where the winds of space fall upon the magnetic field of the earth, spiraling down to the North and South poles, creating beautiful curtains of light where they touch the sky." He waved his hoof in pantomime. "I suspect you rarely see them this close to the equator, but perhaps your Princesses will permit me a chance to display them some evening during my stay." He blinked. "Ah! But one of you at least is from the Crystal Empire. You have perhaps seen something similar, when the spire of the Crystal Heart sheds its light through the sky..."

    The youngsters all nodded politely. "Um. Why are your hooves different from all the other ki-rin?" Bright Eyes said, curious.

    Zheng He regarded his hooves. "A mark of my power," he said. "All ki-rin have magical power... but if a ki-rin performs certain meditations every day, for a thousand and one days, he gains the power of flight." He illustrated, levitating off his cloud cushion for a moment. "His hooves turn golden, his youthful vigor is restored, and his magic is greatly enhanced."

    Bright Eyes looked around; he could see the Emperor's people milling about close by. "Then why aren't there more?" he asked.

    Zheng He's expression turned wry. "Because if his golden hooves touch the base earth, his hooves turn iron gray, he loses his power and must meditate another thousand and one days to regain it," he said. "And if he misses a single day, he must start all over again... few outside of royalty have both the patience to spend in the effort, and the luxury to go without setting foot upon the soil afterward. I am afforded this little luxury--" he patted the cloud "-- so that the Emperor might always be at his greatest power and vigor."

    "Doesn't sound very fair to the farmers," Spike noted.

    Surprisingly Zheng He shrugged in apparent agreement. "Things are as they are," he said. "Though as Emperor I have decreed that all our elders, regardless of status, must be afforded the right to retreat from the world and rejuvenate themselves in this manner whenever the weight of their age presses upon them. Such pilgrimages and sabbaticals are an ancient part of our heritage."

    Nyx squinted at him and tapped her chin with her hoof. Spike recognized the expression; it was what he had come to know as Nyx's "Rules Lawyer" face."So... if somepony handed you a flowerpot... or threw a clod of dirt at you... you'd lose your magic?" she asked.

    "A discerning question," Zheng He said, intrigued. "And no. I must actually touch the ground itself, not merely the soil. I grow bonsai trees as one of my hobbies, after all; it would ill serve me if I was unable to handle a pot of dirt."

    "Oh. So would touching..." she tapped her hoof on the marble floor. "...this floor count? We're way up in a castle on a mountain, after all."

    Zheng He peered down. "Most likely it would," he said. "The stone of the floor touches the stone of the mountain, whose root lies deep in the heart of the world."

    Nyx's nose scrunched up as she thought. "Oh, so it's sort of like static electricity!" she said. "You have to sort of... build up a magical charge. And then not let yourself 'ground out' by touching the ground."

    "A fair analogy," Zheng He said.

    "...And that's why your castle is floaty," she said, enthused. "So you don't accidentally ground yourself out. I bet a lot of the royalty in your country have floating houses too..."

    "Well reasoned, Princess Nyx," Zheng He said, pleased. "You are every bit as sharp of mind as I have come to expect from the alicorn race." Nyx blushed.

    Her smile faded quickly as she regarded the kindly ki-rin. "Was... was Neighpon damaged very badly by the storms?" she blurted out.

    Zheng He blinked at her."There was...some little damage," he confessed. "A great number of our newer buildings, roads and bridges were harmed, I am afraid. But my people have many centuries of experience dealing with the typhoons of the Western Sea. Most of what was damaged has already been repaired. But why trouble yourselves? Those are things for your elders to worry about."

    Nyx, Spike and Bright Eyes looked at each other. He didn't know. "Because... because it was my fault," Nyx said. "I was Nightmare Moon."

    Zheng He's expression shifted from amusem*nt, to skepticism, to surprise and bemusem*nt. "I... see," he said. "... No, I do not. How is this so?"

    Abashed, Nyx recited her story. Zheng listened with an impassive expression. "...And now here I am," Nyx concluded. "I'm so, so sorry for what happened. I had no idea that what I did would cause-- I mean I knew it was bad, but not how bad..." she looked up at him with guilty eyes. "I... want to make things right, but I don't know how."

    "Wow," said Gossamer, leaning out of the blooming onion bowl. "I'd be grounded like... forever."

    Zheng He looked stern. "Hmm. It is good that you wish to make amends... but, I am afraid that sometime, there is no real way to make things right again," he noted. "One cannot go into the past. One can only move forward, into tomorrow."

    "So how does she do that?" Spike said, idly feeding PeeWee a cracker from the buffet.

    Zheng He raised an eyebrow and smiled. "That is, in the end, what the assembly tomorrow is about, is it not?" he said. "Do not let these momentary troubles bring you low, young ones. The wiser among us are here to solve a problem, not worsen it."

    "Zheng He! THERE you are!"

    "Though the wisdom among us is anything but uniform," Zheng He muttered under his breath. He turned to face the boisterous voice, a smile fixed rigidly to his face. "Pele', it has been many a decade."

    The sinuous, fire-colored dragoness loomed over him, a co*cktail glass the size of a punch bowl in one enormous claw."Since dat last scheduled eruption of Mt. Fuji, anyway," she said. "Hah!" She peered down at the younglings. "Ahh, and who are these?"

    "Pele', allow me to present Princess Nyx, Crystal Champion Spike, Crystal Champion Bright Eyes--eh?" he found himself gesturing at an empty space. Nyx elbowed it, and an intimidated-looking Bright Eyes reappeared. "Oh. Ah, and miss...?" he looked at Gossamer.

    "Gossamer."

    "Gossamer, of the flutterponies. Children, Pele', mistress of earthquakes and volcanoes."

    Pele's laughter bubbled up. "Aren't they Da cute!" she said, lowering her head to look at them, a grin full of pointed teeth spreading across her face. "Oh, I could just eat you lot up--"

    Bright Eyes promptly vanished again. Pele' boomed with laughter. "Oh not like THAT," Pele' chortled. "It's only an expression, little one. Old Pele' wouldn't harm a scale on your heads...."

    "Indeed she would not," Zheng He assured them in a discreet aside. "But do be careful where she places her feet." He raised his voice to address the dragoness. "It would seem that young Nyx here is the inadvertent cause of our coming together here."

    "What?" Pele' gave Nyx a wide eyed look. "Hah! So mama Celestia let you take the sun out foa drive without a learner's permit, did she?" she laughed at her own joke, her necklace of gilded conch shells rattling as she chortled.

    "Nnnot exactly," Nyx said weakly. "More like... the sun AND the moon and-- it's really awkward to explain..."

    Pele's mouth made an "Oh" of understanding. "Ohhh, took em out without asking, eh? Bet you got in some hot lava over that, eh?" She gave Nyx a broad wink.

    "You have no idea," Spike drawled.

    "So we all come together for this poho so everyone can scowl and bluster at the little miscreant, hmm?" Pele' snorted, taking a swig of her drink. "Eh, don't let the old futs scare you, little one. They give Pele' sass all the time, complain about how she do her job. Bunch of whiny babies, throw a fit if the ground shake a little or they get a little soot in their hair..."

    "What is your job?" Nyx asked.

    "Pele' oversees the volcanoes and fault lines," Zheng He explained. "As the tectonic plates move, they can build up pressure. Her job is to make sure the volcanoes erupt and earthquakes happen in a timely fashion."

    "Isn't that, um, bad?" Bright Eyes ventured, fading back into visibility.

    "Better a little blowout than a big one, sweet pea," Pele' said. "A little eruption now and then, let mama earth do a little hula once in a while--" she wiggled her hips with a grin. "And she blows off some steam. It prevents big quakes and eruptions."

    "Usually prevents big quakes and eruptions," Zheng He said drily.

    Pele' rolled her eyes. "You still goin' on about that last hitch I did in your islands?" she said. "It was two hundred years ago!"

    "Yes," Zheng He. "I am responsible for an archipelago of 6,800 islands, Pele."

    "So?"

    "So, before your 'visit,' I was ruler over seven thousand!"

    "Pah. Most of them 'islands' was no bigger than this room..."

    "Krakatoa wasn't."

    "You own fault, you kept putting off me coming out there and letting 'Toa vent..."

    "The explosion deafened islanders hundreds of miles away! The sunsets were tinted red for a year!"

    "Psssht." Pele' made a dismissive gesture at the ki-rin and turned her attention to the foals. "Like I say; they always complain about something. Don't let them intimidate you."

    Nyx wasn't quite sure how to feel about this advice. Considering the source.

    "Oh,and who do we have here?" Pele' said suddenly. Apparently Spike had caught her attention. She bent down to get a closer look. "Aww, little member of my tribe, just out of the shell!"

    Spike bridled a bit. "Little is as little does," he said.

    Pele' only chortled, which only made him bridle further. "Oh don' be like that," Pele' said. "It's sweet the li'l ponies made you their mascot. Must be a big thing for such a tiny li'l fellow like you..."

    Nyx snickered as Spike's furrowed brow turned into a full on scowl of disgust. He got a look in his eye that Nyx didn't quite recognize."All right, she asked for it," he muttered. He went down on one knee, resting his knuckles on the floor."....Spot me out, Bright Eyes," he said.

    Bright Eyes automatically scoped out the immediate surroundings. "Clear-- but watch your tail."

    "Wha--?" Pele' started to say, mystified. The hatchling in front of her snout suddenly disappeared in a swelling cascade of glittering light, blinding her.

    When her eyes cleared, she found herself looking up-- WAY up-- at a powerfully built male dragon clad in gleaming crystal armor. Even crouching on one knee, he loomed over her like a mountain of scaly muscle.The attendees of the party were made of sterner stuff than the typical pony; only one or two screamed.

    "CAREFUL, WE GROW UP FAST," he rumbled.

    "Gwaabaah..." Pele' said.

    Zheng He hadn't even batted an eyelid. "Speak in haste, regret at leisure," he chided a flabbergasted Pele' under his breath.

    Pele' ignored him and stood up. "All right, brah, cute joke." She eyed Spike up and down and gave him a smirk, one that he wasn't quite sure but it seemed awfully different from the one before. "Not bad. I see why Tia keeps you under wraps." She gave him a slow wink and a smirk that was decidedly different from her earlier tone. Despite being a head taller than her and twice her mass, Spike suddenly felt rather nervous for some reason.

    "Ah, there you are!"

    Both dragons looked down in surprise. Stepping between them came a gleaming white unicorn with a beautifully coiffed mane. "And here I was worrying how I'd find you in this crowd, Spike," Rarity said jovially. "Oh do please come back down here, you're making a scene. And the doctors said you weren't to do that for at least another six months!"

    "I'M NOT EVEN HALF SIZE," Spike said, a bit petulant.

    Pele' reared up at this. "Oh pull de otha one..." she scoffed.

    "No lie," Nyx told her.

    "Gwah?"

    Rarity waved a hoof. "Still, Spikey...please. I would be devastated if you set back your recovery." She batted her lashes at him.

    Spike blushed a bit. "OKAY, OKAY..." there was another cascade of light, and Spike reappeared at his original size.

    "Very good." Rarity stepped over and gave him a peck on the top of his scaly head. He fussed, but anyone looking could see he was pleased at the attention.

    Pele' retrieved her co*cktail and stood there looking nonplussed. "And who might you be?"

    "Oh do forgive me for barging in," Rarity said. "I am Rarity, Bearer of the Element of Generosity. I'm afraid I've been looking all over for dear Spike and got ahead of myself when I spotted him..."

    Zheng He bowed. "Emperor Zheng He, of Neighpon. Pele', Mistress of Earthquakes and Volcanoes."

    Rarity curtseyed in return. "Charmed."

    Zheng He regarded Rarity and Spike with a knowing eye. "If I may ask, what is your relation to the young Crystal Champion?"

    Rarity and Spike both hemmed and hawed. "It's...complicated..." Rarity trailed off, not quite meeting Spike's eye.

    It was then Bright Eyes jumped in and saved the day. "He's her champion and she's his lady fair," he piped up. "Like in the book Donkey Oatie."

    The two immortals paused, then made sounds of understanding. The old tradition of a knight errant bearing the favor of his chaste lady fair was familiar to them.... if, in their case, as a fairly recent fad."Too young to court, but old enough to bear her standard, then, ey?" Pele' said with a grin. Spike just flushed.

    "Oh, indeed," Rarity said. "Spike is the very soul of chivalry, especially for his age. He's quite dear to us all. We would do anything for him." She gave Spike a rather deliberate nuzzle. "Why if somepony ever hurt him there's no telling what we might do." She gave the dragoness a dazzling smile.

    Nobody there missed that emphasis. Nor did they miss just how many teeth were in that smile, or the way Rarity managed to step just ever so slightly between Spike and Pele'. Nyx's eyebrows went up. She wasn't... she was! Hokey Smokes. Spike suddenly looked nervous. "Uh, you'll have to excuse me," he said. "But Peewee here has been wanting to meet the Firebird..." he indicated the baby phoenix perched on his shoulder, who cheeped an affirmative.

    "Oh, well--" Rarity started to say, but Zheng He interrupted. "Of course. We'll all just get acquainted in the meantime..." Relieved, Spike hastily got out of the blast zone.

    "Oh, and I needed to speak to um... somepony... about something," Nyx said.

    "Uh yeah, me too!" Gossamer said. She jumped into the air, sketched a bow, and fluttered off after Nyx.Bright Eyes, true to his nature, had already disappeared.(1)

    Zheng He said nothing, but Pele' regarded the unicorn with a co*cked eyebrow. "Easy, sister. Pele' ain't no manstealer. A bit young for you though, ain't 'e?" she said, sotto voce. "

    Rarity flushed and looked aside. "It's... complicated," she said.

    "Complicated, I have found, is what ponies call things that are quite simple-- yet hard to face." Zheng He folded his forehooves in his lap.

    Rarity sighed. "Ever since we first met, he has... doted on me. No, I'll say it... he's loved me. At first I treated it as merely a crush. I tried ignoring it, then I tried humoring him. I was even a bit cruel to him, exploiting him like a little hoofservant in hopes he would tire of me. But... years went by and his devotion never swerved. No matter how I tried to push him away. Even when I went swanning after one stallion or the other. Then, in the Crystal Empire, he-- he nearly died fighting to save my life.

    "You saw how he grew. He fought six dragons, six of them! -- who had gorged on fire opals. All of them were at least twice the size you just saw him." Pele's eyebrows shot up and she let out a startled oath.Rarity nodded." Exactly. He was outmatched six to one, and he was hospitalized after the fight was over. But he won. He won!" There was a fierce sort of pride in Rarity's eyes. "And when he was lying there in that hospital bed... he told me that the reason he had fought so hard was... of all the things he had, that I was his greatest treasure." Rarity closed her eyes and put a hoof to her Element where it rested on her throat. "Me. Not Twilight, not Celestia. Me." She smiled. "What else could I do but finally fall in love with him?"

    She looked up at Pele'. "He's only just turned fifteen," she said. "He's still... so childlike still, in many ways. But four or five years isn't long to wait." She chuckled. "And after all, I've already seen a preview of what's to come." The chuckle was followed by a sigh. "I promised him, when he reached his majority, I'd give him a chance. I just hope I'm not too much of an old nag by then to keep his interest."

    "Hmmmmm." Pele' frowned a bit, and began fishing through the myriad trinkets dangling around her neck. After a moment's searching she produced a pendant-- a large, flat stone the size of a serving platter, with a smooth hole worn through the middle. She lifted it up to her eye and stared at Rarity through it. The dragoness' eye went wide. She yipped and dropped the stone. "Celestia, you lolo wahine..." she muttered to herself, then chuckled.

    Rarity blinked. "I beg your pardon?"

    "Oh, don' let it boddah you." She got a sly look. "And don' worry. Five years? pssh. I take after dinner naps longer than that." She looked at Rarity through the stone again, slyly. "Les' just say Pele' thinks you n' him gon' have plenty happy years, bumbye."

    Rarity gave her a curious look. Zheng He interjected before she could say anything. "Forgive my rudeness," he said. "But there is another matter which I would happily discuss with the Bearer of one of the Elements."

    "Do tell?"

    "Yes," he said. "She is quite charming, and leaves a good first impression. But I crave.. a more personal perspective, from one who knows her. What more can you tell me of Princess Nyx?"

    1)The colt was born for stealth.

    Chapter 17

    I've done a lot of weird things, Nyx reflected, but talking to a gryphon's butt has to take the cake.

    The royal gryphons were as different from the regular gryphons as alicorns were from regular ponies. They were a size again larger, for one, and their feathers had a faint golden sheen to them, fading from gold-white at the head to dark honey over the body. They also had feathery ear-tufts on their heads, like Owlowiscious did. But the most striking difference was their tails; instead of a tufted lion's tail, they had a... well... a snake.With scales, and eyes, and fangs, and quite apparently a brain and a mind of their own.

    She had been perusing the buffet when she'd felt a nudge at her shoulder. She'd turned around and nearly jumped out of her skin; a rather large python was looking her in the eye and holding a plate out to her in its mouth. After a moment's petrification, the snake nodded in the direction of the crab salad on the table, then waggled the plate at her. Nyx got the clue and scooped some of the salad onto the plate for it. The snake repeated this with a couple more items on the buffet, dipped its head to her in a bow, and then turned around to the gryphon standing behind it.

    It was then that Nyx saw the snake wasn't a snake, but a tail. At least, it was growing out of... er, the place where gryphon tails normally grew... on the gryphon in question. It nudged the gryphon, who was talking animatedly with a round, rocky looking creature, in the shoulder with the plate. "Oh, hey, thanks, bro, we were getting hungry, weren't we," he said, taking the platter from the snake's mouth. "They got any sticky buns?"

    "I'll check," the snake said, in a surprisingly high and foal-like voice.

    Nyx's jaw dropped. "You can talk too?" she said.

    The snake grinned at her. "Yup. Little bit out of your experience?" Nyx shook her head, then nodded. "Yeah, we don't get out of the Gryphon Kingdom much." The snake looked her over, giving her a double-take. "Wait. Holy pinfeathers, are you...?"

    Nyx nodded in chagrin and did a little curtsey. "Princess Nyx Sparkle, at your service," she said.

    "Wow. Hi!" The snake turned and jabbed the gryphon in the shoulder with his nose. "Hey Killdeer!" The teenage gryphon twisted his head around to see what his tail wanted. "Say hello. This is the pony who did the whole moon and sun thing!"

    "Whoa, really?" Killdeer looked down at Nyx and blinked. "Kewl."

    Despite herself Nyx winced. "Oh, um... Princess Nyx, at your service, Prince... um, Kill...Deer?"

    Killdeer waved a talon in a negative. "Oh, hey, take it easy-- it's just a type of bird," he said, laughing nervously. "Family tradition; we get named after birds. I know how it sounds, but I swear I've never hunted anything more lively than a tuna sandwich." He gestured over his shoulder at the snake. "This is Adder."

    "Charmed," Adder said.

    "Is that your name or the type of snake?" Nyx queried.

    "Name," Adder said, rolling his eyes. "The other half of the tradition. Our full name is Killdeer-Adder. Could've been worse I suppose. We have a cousin named Asp...."

    "So you're the one who stirred everything up," Killdeer said.

    Nyx nodded. "The Alicorns and the Kingdom of Equestria extend their ap-apologies," she recited dolefully from memory, "and will work to resolve our dis-- um-- difficulties--"

    Killdeer waved his claws. "Nah, nah, nah, save that for our old man," he said.

    Nyx stumbled to a halt. "You're not upset?"

    Killdeer shrugged. "Well, I'm not happy it happened," he said. "But we're not the head of the High Gryphons family, so it's sort of wasted wing-wash for us. 'Sides, it wasn't all that big a deal."

    "It wasn't?"

    "No more than any bad week of storms," Adder clarified. "The Gryphon Kingdom is almost entirely mountains, and it fell in the penumbra of the Endless Night."

    "The, uh, edge of it, he means," Killdeer said, with the air of someone who'd had to have it explained to them.

    "--Consequently we got an entire week of windstorms," Adder went on. "From the warm fronts of the sun-side swapping places with the cold fronts from the dark...

    "Man, that was a bodacious week," Killdeer rhapsodized, staring off into space with a dreamy expression. "Best surfin' sky I've ever seen..."

    "Skysurfing," Adder clarified once more, when he saw Nyx's puzzled expression. "You fly up and ride the winds on a big wide flying board. The goal is to stay airborne as long as you can without using your wings."

    "Totally mackin' updrafts," Killdeer said. "And the vortexes, man-- totally gnarly!"

    "Um... you're welcome?" Nyx said, confused.

    Adder snickered. "I'd better warn you, our parents aren't as mellow about it. There was a lot of damage, and it did sort of muck up the jet streams for a while. And some of the old farts on the tribal council want the Emperor-- our grandsire-- and our leader to use it to get Celly over a barrel." He rolled his eyes. "Revenge for that war a couple centuries back."

    Nyx knew what he was referring to. The Gryphon Invasion Miss Cheerilee talked about in history class. It hadn't gone well for the Gryphons. The Gryphon immortals controlled the high winds and jet streams; Celestia had, at the time, controlled both the Moon and the Sun. It had been no match. "Wait, your grandfather isn't the ruler?" she backtracked.

    "Nah. The clans appoint a High King. Us Immortals are sort of a separate thing all to ourselves." Killdeer preened one wing absently. "Some sort of separation of powers thing. Grandad's the Emperor, but... meh, it's complicated."

    "He means 'boring,' " Adder quipped.

    Killdeer suddenly seemed to remember himself. "Oh, uh, yeah, right--I gotta speech too right---" he said. He put on a mock stern expression and fluffed out his neck ruff. "Uh, well, the uh Noble Empire of the Gryphon People will demand constipation--"

    "Compensation," Adder corrected as Nyx snickered explosively.

    "--Compensation for the damages and undressed--"

    "Distress..."

    "of our people and oh stuff it, you get the idea." Killdeer let out his breath and sort of drooped. "Man, adults and their issues can be a drag."

    "Yeah," Nyx said sympathetically. She paused. "I really am sorry about what happened... and I know Celestia and Luna and my mom will figure out a way to fix everything."

    "Yeah, I kinda figured," Killdeer said. He gave her a gryphonish grin. "But it's still nice to hear."

    "That's nice and all," someone behind them said, "but it doesn't explain how they're going to fix it." Nyx jumped a little and turned around. She found herself facing a golden-orange filly about her age. Next to her stood one of the tubby little seal-people from Formosa, a Selkie. The two had apparently been chatting right next to them for some time. The selkie Nyx had no trouble accepting, but she was puzzled at what a normal earth pony filly was doing in this gala of strange and exotic creatures.

    Then Nyx glanced down and realized it wasn't an earth pony filly.

    The filly was sitting in an ornate glass fishbowl, balanced on three gilded wheels so that it could roll about the floor. The gold-trimmed lip of the bowl only came up to her waist; she sat with her forehooves resting on the rim. But through the glass Nyx could see a golden-scaled tail with fan-like fins... "Omigosh, you're a seapony?" she blurted out.

    "Last time I checked," the filly in the bowl said, giggling a little. Her face fell a little. "I'm Doubloon. My father's a diplomat from Oceanica."

    "I thought you were all from Atlantis?" Nyx said.

    "Oceanica's one of the territories of Atlantis," Killdeer chipped in, explaining.

    Nyx gave a silent "oh" and nodded.

    "And I am Songhili," the selkie said, offering a stubby paw. "of the island of Formosa." Nyx extended her hoof and shook it carefully, an awkward blush rising up her neck. It was a little awkward meeting one of the creatures whose island she'd inadvertently wrecked.

    "Um, pleased to meet you..." she said tentatively. Tongue tied, she turned back to the seapony. "Why are you looking so down?" Nyx asked.

    Doubloon's expression soured. "Wouldn't you be down if you were stuck where I am?A thousand miles from home, sitting in a stupid cramped little fish bowl in some stupid party all because some dum-dum mucked around with the sun again?" She pouted, her hooves crossed over her chest, her tailfin waving in the air moodily behind her. She looked at Killdeer/Adder. "What?" The gryphon prince was standing behind Nyx, making less-than-discreet pointing motions with both fingers and snake snout at the little black alicorn.

    Nyx felt her ears growing hot. "That dum-dum would be me," she said sheepishly. "I'm Nyx. Princess Twilight's daughter."

    Give the sea-filly credit, she didn't waste time with 'no way' or 'no really.' Her eyes went round and she put her hooves to her mouth. "Urph," she said. her orange cheeks flushed a bright red.

    "Yup, that's her!" said a voice overhead. The little group looked up. Gossamer the Flutterpony fluttered down from above and hovered between them. "The newest Princess in Equestria and the reason they're having this big crazy meeting. Okay, second newest, 'cause her mom became a princess before she did, but she was an alicorn before her mom was, which makes it all weird, but--" The others stared in rapt attention as the flutterpony rattled on like a miniature Pinkie Pie. Nyx couldn't help noticing that Gossamer's face and hooves were dusted with what looked like powdered sugar.

    "Ah," Songhili said. He gave a bubbly giggle. "Then it is you I have to thank for this vacation away from home." He gave a little bobbing bow.

    Nyx returned it. This... she was going to need a thesaurus to find a word for 'more and more awkward.'

    Doubloon was somewhere between mortification and a sulk. "Great," she said, her eyes downcast. "My parents bring me to a diplomatic thing and I insult one of the princesses of Equestria right to her face."

    "notaprincess," Nyx muttered automatically. "Sokay. I wasn't exactly being smart when it happened."

    Doubloon still looked mortified. "I'm still sorry," she said. "That was...I'm sorry, okay? I just...."

    Adder gave her a cynical look. "Are you really sorry, or are you just afraid you said something that will get you in trouble with a princess?" he asked in his high piping voice.

    Doubloon flustered, but Gossamer responded. "That's not really fair," she said. "Of course she's scared she said something that'll get her in trouble. We're all like that right now, aren't we?" A brief look of understanding went around the group. They were all children of 'very important people,' some of them with more experience at it than others. But they all knew what it was like to have to be careful of every single word they said, everywhere, all the time. And as young as they were they already knew it was going to get worse as time went by.

    "I know what you mean," Killdeer lamented. "Shoot, sometimes it's so bad at I just assume I'm already in trouble before I even arrive." The others laughed at.

    "I am sorry about being so rude," Doubloon said. "I just feel... so..."

    "Nervous? Scared? Hungry? Gassy?" Gossamer fired off. Nyx squinted at her suspiciously. Were there Flutterponies in the Pie family tree?

    "Uncomfortable," Doubloon said. She gestured around her. "Back home, a ballroom like this would be filled to the top with ponies swimming about, free as you please.Here, they have this great big room, and most everypony is stuck on the floor. All this open space and I'm stuck on the floor like a barnacle in this little bowl... scooting around... while all the dry-landers stare..."She glowered at one of the ice sculptures on the buffet. It happened to be of a gaily smiling fish caught in mid-leap. "I feel like I should be up there on the table on display with the fruit salad." In a small voice, she added, "I really hate being here."

    "Yeah, I guess it must feel weird," Gossamer said. She pointed up at the crystal ceiling high overhead. The evening clouds had gathered in for a scheduled rainstorm, and raindrops were pattering on the glass. "And look at that! Water in the sky, water underneath--" she pointed out to the waterfall that could be seen out the windows, spilling out from under the palace. "Water around us, water in bowls....And here we are in here, in all this empty dry space, like-- like a fish bowl turned inside out!"

    The others stared at her. "That's it, I'm checking Pinkie Pie's family tree," Nyx said.

    Songhili nodded. "Not an untrue assessment, though," he said.

    "Homesick, huh," said a voice next to Doubloon. She let out a yeep as Bright Eyes shimmered into existence. "I know what you mean. I've been living in Equestria for months now, and sometimes I miss the Crystal Empire something awful. The shining palace, the city glittering at night like a box full of jewels...."

    Killdeer-Adder looked wistful. "Yeah. I miss the Temple of the Winds,"Killdeer said. "It's on the highest mountain in Gryphonia. Way higher than this. The snowy mountain peaks all around... you'd think the mountain range goes on forever." Adder nodded with a sigh. "The valley between Aerie Mountain and Eagle's Peak, where all the best skysurfing is..."

    "I... I miss the coral reefs," Doubloon said. "All the beautiful tropical fish and the anemones waving in the tides.." She smiled and closed her eyes, hugging herself. "And the sun shining down through the water. And there's this one tiny island I know, you can swim up on the beach to lie in the sun, it's so warm..."

    "Meemaw's flower garden," Gossamer said, her antennae drooping. "Great big blooms, big enough to take a midsummer nap in... and her and the other tenders singing as they herded the bees..."

    "The night tides in the Starlight Lagoon," Songhili said dreamily. "The water is teeming with tiny glowing krill. It makes the whole lagoon look like it is filled with moonlight instead of water, and the beach dusted with stars..."

    Nyx blinked. That was right. These other kids were the kids of diplomats and ambassadors and royalty, and they'd traveled thousands of miles--- days and days--- to be here. They were probably too homesick to tell. If they did this a lot, they were probably homesick all the time, too. "Ponyville," Nyx said, surprising the others. "The library tree. The smell of goodies baking in Sugarcube Corner. The apple trees. The Cutie Mark Crusaders clubhouse..."

    "I thought you lived here," Doubloon said. "In Canterlot, I mean."

    Nyx shook her head. "We lived in Ponyville until just a few weeks ago," she said. "And then Mom became an alicorn, and... well..." she shrugged.

    They all shared a brief moment of melancholy."You can only be where you are," Songhili said, fatalistically.

    "This is kind of bumming me out," Killdeer said. "I think we could use a change of pace. "

    "Yeah. So let's find something here to take our minds off home. Is there anything really cool around here?" he asked Nyx.

    Surprised at the question, Nyx bit her lip. She was a member of the royal family, after all, wasn't she? She was probably responsible to put Equestria's best hoof forward. "Well," she said, thinking. "There are the castle art galleries... and the museum and archives on the lower floors--"

    Adder snorted and Killdeer waved a claw dismissively. "Nah, nah, not all that 'guided tour' stuff they trot out all the time," Killdeer said. He leaned in. "The cool stuff. You know, the stuff us kids know is the really interesting stuff, but grownups never talk about?"

    Nyx got the idea. A grin slowly crept across her face. "I think I know a few places around the castle that are pretty cool," she said. Slowly she began to put together a mental checklist for a knee-high tour of Canterlot palace... one that would surely have given Pomp and Circ*mstance grey manes, had they known that one of the Princesses was about to show to the children of foreign dignitaries. "Come on, I'll go get permission to show you all around."

    "Won't we get in trouble for leaving the party?" Bright Eyes said. At this, a couple of the children looked anxious. Then Doubloon snorted. She pointed at a couple of ponies circulating through the crowds. They had press passes, and moved like remoras through a school of sharks... or perhaps like lampreys through an unsuspecting school of tuna.

    "Are you kidding?" she said. "We've already got grownup ponies watching like moray eels, waiting for any little mistake we make. We're probably better off if we disappear for a while."

    "Yeah," Killdeer said. "Let's get out of here before one of those reporter pony guys reports that Nightmare Moon declared war on Oceanica or something." There was shared laughter at that. (1) Nyx cantered off to find her mother.

    The atmosphere around the firebird was almost oppressively transcendental, even by Spike's standards-- and he'd been surrounded by nigh-cosmic magical beings since his very hatching. The glorious bird was perched on a sedan chair and was idly pecking at a bowl of fruits and seeds as dozens of wildly colored birds of every description, birds so exotic they would have demanded the center of attention by themselves anywhere else, danced attendance on it. With the firebird present, there was no other spotlight.

    PeeWee, no slouch in the cosmically magical department himself, was obviously feeling the effect of being near the archetype of all things winged and wondrous. The little phoenix was sitting slack-beaked on Spike's shoulder, staring stupidly. It was getting a bit embarrassing.

    The firebird raised its plumed head and looked Spike in the eye. "Yes?" it said. Spike was immediately reminded of Nyx's glass-harp voice; the firebird spoke in tones that made him think of a torrent of crystal windchimes blowing in the breeze.

    It was then Spike realized that he'd been standing there at the edge of the Firebird's entourage, staring as stupidly as PeeWee. He coughed, face reddening, and cleared his throat. "Pardon me, your, um, your Grace? Your Highness?" he said clumsily. "But my phoenix, PeeWee, just wanted to make your acquaintance." PeeWee recognized his cue and hastily sketched a feathery kowtow to the shining bird.

    The Firebird bowed its head genially. "Ah. Well met." The Firebird was as graceful as a swan, yet had a fierce countenance like a bird of prey. It fixed that eagle's gaze on Spike. "I have been wishing to speak to you."

    "T-to me?" Spike stammered.

    "To your mistress, at least," the Firebird said. "The Princess Twilight Sparkle. If you would speak to her on my behalf?"

    "Oh. Uh, of course. What did you need me to say to her?"

    "I have something for her." The Firebird pulled something from under its wing; a book. "She is new to these circles of power, and I suspect she is not yet fully instructed in certain things by her own tutor. This may be of considerable aid to her."

    Spike took the book from its beak. "Thank you, I'll get it right to her." He read the cover, frowning in puzzlement.

    "Kah ho willa higga-hooah ibba-ithuh (ehh)." The enormous stone creature spoke slowly and solemnly, its tiny arms gesturing eloquently.

    "um. You don't say," Twilight said.

    "Iick-weh needah habeedi-go-hugula (ehh-ehh)."

    "Um hmm...." Twilight smiled politely and nodded. Ink Spot leaned in and muttered in her ear.

    "Do you understand a word he's saying?" he said.

    "Not a word," Twilight muttered back without moving her lips. "And I'm not even sure it's a 'he.' "

    "Ah."

    By hook or by crook, Twilight Sparkle had found herself deep in conversation, if it could be called such, with one of the delegates from the Eastern Islands. The creature was a lithom*orph, seemingly made out of living stone. It resembled an enormous head, with a heavy brow, a long, ridged nose, and a wide flat mouth--- and tiny stubby feet, and equally stubby arms stuck to its sides where its ears should be. It also seemed oblivious to Twilight's complete incomprehension of its native tongue.

    Boo-hoo-halooah iikhi gu-ii-gu-ii

    Ahleenghi gubbahl aahrh

    (A'Hannih-hannih-hannih!)

    "Truer words were never spoken," Ink Spot ventured bravely. Twilight elbowed him. Despite the complete lack of comprehensibility, or perhaps because of it, the conversation had been marvelously civil, and she'd like to keep it that way. Of course, what was she worrying about-- the Eastern Islander apparently didn't understand a word of Equuish, either...

    "Twilight! I have something for you!"

    Twilight turned around, a barely smothered "oh thank the Maker" on her lips. "What is it, Spike?" she asked.

    Spike came trotting up, a largish book in his hands. "It's from the Firebird," he said. "He... they said it would be important to you, now that you're a Princess."

    Curious, Twilight took the volume in her magic and read the cover. It was a surprisingly utilitarian looking volume, more like a heavily oversized technical manual than any ancient tome of wisdom. Across the cover in no-nonsense block print was the title:

    DOCUMENTED FUNDAMENTALS OF PLANETARY POST-ORBITAL ASTROMECHANICS

    1)Equestria Daily's headline the next day: EQUESTRIA HAS ALWAYS BEEN AT WAR WITH OCEANICA.

    Chapter 18

    Nyx's tour was off at a gallop. Now most adults would have focused on the expected; the throne room, the gallery of stained glass windows depicting the history of Equestria; the stately statue garden, and other sights that made the front of tour guides and the covers of magazines.

    Nyx however was a child, and had rapidly gotten jaded with the standard attractions of Canterlot Castle. She was a child and saw the world from a knee-high angle, and had already figured out that if grownups were fascinated with something it was probably boring as dirt.... and that all the interesting stuff was where nopony wanted you to go. Anyone who knew anything knew that a palace was a lot like a swan on a lake; stately and serene above, but with a hell of a lot of activity going on under the surface. She'd done her own exploring of the castle (to the consternation of the guards) and knew where all the maybe-we-shouldn't-be-here,but-nopony-said-we-couldn't places were(1).

    The tour had started with Celestia's private gardens. That was fairly boring, or it would have been if it hadn't started with a prompt detour ("but it was raining!") through the palace greenhouses. Things got a lot more interesting fairly quickly; the greenhouses weren't just used for the flowers out in the castle gardens but for the Princess's scholars, who used them to study some of the more unique plants of Equestria(2). They managed to nearly get into a batch of potted poison joke(3) and had a close shave with Gossamer and a rare carnivorous orchid before they were run off by the greenhouse staff.

    They took a detour through the Guard's quarters. A few of the troops were off duty at the time... mostly bat ponies, as they normally were on duty at night. They thought it was a hoot having the kids trooping through gawking at everything and made them welcome. A few showed off their armor and weapons. The children oohed and aahed at the gleaming steel blades appreciatively.

    The next stop was the great clock. It was a gigantic thing, a massive clockwork of glass and gilding and gears the size of a two-story building, that sat in the middle of the palace right where everypony passed by on their work day. Nyx had found the doorway into the inner workings on her first day and had marveled at the massive cogs and levers and gears working away, measuring out the day.. That stop off was a little disappointing; the enormous clockwork was being dismantled and maintenanced, and workponies were climbing in and out, hauling parts and shouting at one another, so there wasn't even a chance to sneak inside and look around. "No worries, though," the forepony said to the children cheerfully. "We'll have her back together in just a few hours and running the castle schedule right as rain."

    Gossamer hovered in front of the stilled clock face. She had the look of somepony thinking very, very hard. One could almost see the smoke rolling out of her ears. "How do you know?" she finally said.

    The forepony looked up at her. "Pardon?"

    "How do you know that it'll be right?" she said. "The right time, I mean?"

    The forepony scratched his mane under his hard hat. "I don't follow," he said, confused.

    Gossamer fluttered down to hover in front of his face. "Okay, you said everypony in the castle sets their clocks by this one, right?" she said. "So how do you set this one?"

    The forepony grinned, back on familiar ground. "We use the sun dial out in the courtyard, little lady," he said.

    "But that's the thing," Gossamer said. "The sun comes up whenever Princess Celestia says it does! It reaches high noon whenever she says it does, too! She could sleep in late one day or something..."

    "No, no, she gets up at the crack of dawn--" Nyx started to say. Then her brow furrowed. "Wait a minute...."

    "Yeah, but dawn only cracks when she says it does," Killdeer pointed out. He looked at Adder and grinned. "Dude. That would be awesome. We could sleep in as long as we want!"

    "Oh, she'd never do that," the forepony protested. "Princess Celestia is much too devoted to her duty to do that. Besides, her steward sets her alarm clock every day."

    "And he sets it by what, again?" Gossamer said, pointing at the enormous, inert clock behind them. Brows furrowed, eyes went wide as realization set in. "Uh huh, you see? You see? Nopony knows what time it is! Nopony!" Gossamer threw her tiny forehooves wide. "It could be yesterday, or tomorrow, or tea time last Tuesday, right now, and nopony would ever know it!"

    Nyx looked at Doubloon. "I think I wanna stop thinking about this," she said. Doubloon nodded. Fervent agreement went up from all the children. "Excuse us, Mister, we're gonna go... um... someplace else," Nyx said to the forepony. "Thank you for talking with us..." They all hastily trundled off, leaving the forepony there to dwell on his growing existential horror.

    "Andherewehavethelegendarykitchenswheretheyprepareallthegoodiestheyserve---"

    "Zut alors!"

    "Totheleftyou'llseethestoneovensthattheyuseexclusivelyforallthebakedgoods--"

    "Oy!"

    "--andthesearethecoolingracksitlooksliketodaythey'remakingraspberrytarts--"

    "Get away from there!"

    "--andasyoucanguessfromtheincreasingnumberofkitchenstaffchasingustheyreallydon'tlikeitwhenyoutakefreesamples--"

    "OUTOUTOUT!!"

    "--andthatconcludesourtouroftheCanterlotCastlekitchenwehopeyouenjoyedyourvisit!"

    The giggling mob of royal children came to a halt several twists and turns further up and into the palace later to finish scarfing their "pilfered" treats. None of them had missed that the tarts they'd swiped had been on a single suspiciously unguarded tray, right in their path and at placed at convenient hoof-height...

    "Brummm brumm put put put brrrrrrm..... errrk, Neighpon drift, here we are!" Spike had caught up with the group a ways back in the tour, and had taken command of pushing Doubloon's wheelchair-bowl about. The little dragon had gotten the hang of it quickly and was now eliciting squeals of laughter from the seapony filly by racing her watery chariot down the halls as fast as his little legs could go.

    "Why Sir Spike, how nice of you to join us," Nyx said plummily. She handed Spike one of the tarts. Spike broke it in half and shared it with Peewee. "Why'd you follow us? I thought you wanted to spend time with Raaaarity." She smiled cheekily and made kissy noises.

    Spike waved her off. "Quit it. Twilight asked me to keep an eye on you all," he said. "Besides, it was getting a little, well, weird, with Pele' around."

    "Didn't Peewee want to meet the Firebird?" Nyx asked.

    "We did. But we kept it short. It was... kinda overwhelming."

    Killdeer-Adder nodded in agreement. "I know what you mean," Killdeer said. "It's like being next to a furnace, except instead of fire it's.... magicalness or something." The other winged members of the little group nodded.

    "You know, to most ponies Celestia and Luna are like that," Nyx said. "Till you get to know them."

    "They certainly have a neat castle," Doubloon said.They had come to halt in one of the castle's many gilded rotundas. They could see the rain drumming on the domed roof high overhead. "It's funny though... in the royal castle of Atlantis, we could host a whole ball in this room right here!"

    "Really?"

    "Sure. Plenty of room for everyone to swim up and down and around... "The others went 'oh' and nodded.

    Songhili gave another bubbly chuckle. "Of course it would be full of water," he said. "Rather hard to serve your pony chef's flambe's like that."

    "Shyeah. Tons more space when you can move in three dimensions," Killdeer said. He flexed his wings a bit. "Man, my wings are killin' me. I'd love to give 'em a stretch but Dad said 'no flying indoors...'

    "Keep talking. I'd give anything to get out of this bowl and stretch my flippers." Doubloon arched her back uncomfortably.

    Songhili nodded his round seal-like head in agreement. "I hate to admit it, but the land is less forgiving than the sea," he said, stretching his stubby legs and wiggling his toes.

    "Why didn't they give you a shape-changing pendant?" Nyx asked Doubloon. "Or one of those magic wobbly water-ball things, like the guards have?"

    Doubloon looked at her with wide eyes. "Are you kidding? magic pendants and water tridents are expensive! Crazy expensive! And there's a waiting list a league long."

    "Water tridents?" Bright Eyes said.

    "Those big fork thingies King Triton's guards carry," Spike translated. "So those are how they do water magic, huh?"

    "Well, every sea pony can do some," Doubloon said. She levitated a globe of water the size of an orange out of her bowl, sent it on an orbit around her and then dropped it back in with a splash. "But to do bigger stuff-- like those blobs of water the guards walk around in-- takes a trident. I could do that... but I'd be exhausted in a minute. And then you'd have to mop your floor." Her expression was wry. "The royal guard have been passing down those tridents from generation to generation for hundreds of years. And landwalker pendants, well, only King Triton is powerful enough to make those."

    "If we took you back to our place, we could let you get out and swim around our bath," Nyx said. The others looked at her. "Hey, it's a really big bath..."

    Spike tapped his chin. "Hey, you know, I think there's a place where you all could stretch your wings and your fins and stuff. Hey Nyx, remember the Water Lily arboretum? The one with the viewing pool?"

    Nyx brightened. "Oh hey, yeah. Follow me everyone!" She trotted off, the mismatch group in tow.

    In the normal route of things, it would have taken several long hallways, a number of grand flights of stairs and at least one spiral staircase up a rather skinny tower. But Nyx and Spike, as was their habit, had spent their time in Canterlot learning the ins and outs of the servant entrances and the service corridors. The work routes of the castle staff were far more practical in nature than those meant for the nobility, and after ascending some easy winding ramps and one ride in a lift normally meant for hauling freight, they reached their goal.

    It was an enormous arboretum the size of a hoofball field. It was set in a courtyard up on the top floor, surrounded by a covered walkway and topped by a high arched roof of emerald green glass at least another two stories high at its peak. Gargoyles set in the rooftops all around poured water down in long arches into the enormous, lily strewn pool. There were signs of recent repairs; a few tools off to one corner, some cut marble tiles stacked next to them, but otherwise the place was abandoned.

    "Sweet!" Killdeer said. He leapt into the air and began flying lazy loops under the high arched roof. Gossamer was right behind him, darting through the air around him in a zigzag game of tag.

    Doubloon was all but wriggling in eagerness. "Are you sure it's okay?" she said anxiously, her eyes never leaving the surface of the pool.

    Spike scoffed. "Sure, why wouldn't it be? It's just a rainwater pool." He pushed the wheelchair bowl closer. That was all the encouragement Doubloon needed; with an eager squeak she leapt from her bowl in a graceful arc and splashed down in the shimmering pool. She surfaced and began swimming laps.

    Songhili was quick to follow her. He doffed the loose sash-like garment he was wearing and dove in, barely making a ripple. The moment he submerged he went a most amazing transformation; his body elongated and grew streamlined, his stubby limbs with their stubby paws stretched out into strong graceful flippers. In a moment he was completely transformed from a brown earless teddy bear into a sleek brown seal. With a wide grin he began doing leaps out of the water, hopping over Doubloon to splash down behind her. Nyx and the others couldn't help but clap, impressed.

    "Oh wait!" Nyx squeaked. "This is freshwater! Seaponies live in salt water! Are you okay, Doubloon? What about you Songhili?"

    Doubloon laughed. "It's okay, Princess," Doubloon said.

    "-Notaprincess" came the automatic interjection.

    "--Sea ponies can live in salt water or fresh. We used to swim up the mouths of rivers to trade with ponies and other races far inland. I hear there were even a few settlements in lakes and stuff."

    "And I am the same," Songhili added. "We selkies are a versatile people."

    "Really? Neat!" Nyx flopped down by the poolside, watching the seapony filly and her selkie partner swim in and out among the waterfalls. Bright Eyes and Spike joined her, Spike rolling up his uniform pants and dangling his feet in the cool water. Songhili finally gave up his antics and merely floated on his back, eyes closed, like a little brown pool toy, wherever the wavelets took him. Doubloon flipped over on her back and floated past them. "Thank you, Princess--"

    "Notaprincess!"

    Doubloon giggled. "Well thank you anyway," she said. "I was being a grumpy old stonefish. This is just what I needed." She floated past on her back just under the surface, an expression of bliss on her face, her golden mane pooling around her in shimmering waves. Nyx felt a little spike of envy for Doubloon's golden tresses; that was a look that would make even Princess Celestia envious.

    "HEY, YOU KIDS!"

    The group nearly jumped out of their skins. Standing on the far side of the pool was a workpony in a hard hat, waving his forehooves in agitation. "Get outta there, you kids! You can't be swimmin' in there!"

    "Okay, okay, we're gettin'," Spike called back as everyone got to their feet. "What's the big deal anyway? It's not like we're gonna dirty it up or anything--"

    "That's not the problem, kid," the worker shouted. "We just opened the sluice gates to drain it!"

    "Omigosh," Nyx yelped. She realized that the seapony filly was drifting to the other end of the reflecting pool at a rapidly accelerating pace. "Doubloon! Songhili!"

    Doubloon sat up and shook her head, clearing her ears. "What??" Then she looked around, realized that she was retreating from her friends at an alarming speed, and looked over her shoulder. Behind her she could see the open end of the pool, water gushing through and pouring down a steep stone gutter-- she yipped and began swimming against the current. To her dismay she continued to lose ground. Songhili became aware of the peril and swam over to her. He seized her necklace in his teeth and began swimming backwards-- but again, to little avail. The two began moving at a rapid clip to the waterfall.

    "I'll get them!" Killdeer said. He dropped down out of the air, claws outstretched to take their paws and hooves.

    "Too steep, too steep--" Adder yelled. He was right; with an awkward splash Killdeer-adder ended the misjudged dive right into the drink. He surfaced, sodden limbs thrashing, his eyes wide.

    "Help! I've forgotten how to swim!!" he hollered. Songhili and Doubloon tried to buoy him up; He quickly became entangled with his intended rescuees as they accelerated toward the end of the pool.

    "I got 'em!" Nyx shouted. An indigo beam of magic reached out from her horn and snagged the trio.

    Those not versed in unicorn magic might not know that telekinesis can be rather more complicated than it looks. There are multiple ways to use quintessence to move an object, and the heavier the object gets the more complicated it gets-- for something as light as, say, a ball of paper, it's no big deal, you simply throw out a loop of magic and lift it. For larger, heavier things, you have to use more advanced methods that take into account leverage, mass, and linear momentum, such as infusing the object with lifting force, or anchoring it against a counterweight.

    Nyx hadn't used any of those advanced methods. It went about as well as one might expect. She was yanked off her hooves like she'd taken a rope around Killdeer's waist and tied it to her horn.

    At the last second Spike and Bright Eyes grabbed her back hooves. Peewee grabbed Spike's headspikes, while Gossamer grabbed Bright Eye's mane. This also went about as well as one might expect. With hollers of dismay the lot of them were yanked out into the water. Before any of them could get their bearings, they were washed out of the end of the pool and into the enormous stone flume. Squawking, shrieking, thrashing and yelling, they shot down the flume and vanished around the bend.

    "Ah horseapples," the workpony said. "I'm getting blamed for this, I just know it."

    The band of wayward nobles' children were better off than it seemed. The reflecting pool and its unfortunate drainage were actually part of the system built into Canterlot castle for handling rainwater. In addition to the mountain springs that fed into the city, any building as vast as the royal palace of Equestria had a lot of rooftops, and that added up to a lot of runoff from rain. The architects who had built Canterlot had foreseen the need to control this influx of water to the royal architecture and had added ponds and reflecting pools all around the castle to make use of it... and a system of waterfalls, gargoyles and rain gutters that rivaled the Roamin aqueducts in sheer scope and complexity.

    The foals had fallen into the system at about the upper third, where the stone gutters became large enough to pass for log flumes and the accumulated water formed a steady torrent. Centuries of rainwater and mountain springwater had worn the stone chutes as smooth and slippery as oiled glass, so they were unlikely to be injured; on the other hand, it also meant they were unlikely to come to a stop any time soon.

    At this point they were all aware they were in a pickle. The fliers among them had their wings too sodden to fly. The unicorns among them were too rattled by their sudden inexplicable inclusion in a whitewater rafting trip without the raft to even begin pulling up any magic. And the only natural swimmers among them, well, it was all they could do to keep themselves pointed in the direction they were going. They hurtled down through the castle architecture like a family of otters on a mud slide, swerving around and between towers, down walls and through culverts like they were shooting the rapids, whooping and hollering the whole way.

    "Where does this let out?? I can't see where we're going!!" Doubloon panicked. She was at the lead of the pack, sliding on her belly like an otter, but she couldn't see further than the next bend in the flume.

    Adder was raised up like a periscope, facing backwards, trying to keep from drowning. "Well it can't look any better than where we've been!!" He shrieked. The next moment they plunged into darkness. They had entered one of the castle's many towers, a spiral staircase without any stairs, and were now spiraling down the inside at heartstopping speed. All there was room for was one final howl as they all plunged into a vortex of water and darkness.

    For what had to be no more than a few seconds but felt like an eternity, they swirled downward, then gushed out into open air and daylight in a wide, flat, and thank the Maker tranquil mirror pool. All of them floated on their backs-- Peewee and Gossamer flopped across the nearest buoyant belly-- and panted as their heart rates slowed. "Are we done yet?" somepony moaned.

    Adder looked up, just in time to see the waterfall off the end of the balcony. "I'll tell you when," he said glumly. Then they were swept over the falls.

    Right below, Celestia was having a "casual chat" with some of her guests as they caught some fresh air on a garden balcony.

    And thus it was that Celestia, King Triton, Emperor Eagle-Cobra of the Gryphons, and several other notables of the convention were on site to witness as the various offspring of several very important dignitaries splashed down in the royal koi pond.

    Adder surfaced like a periscope and spat out a stream of water. "When," he gargled.

    The first to escape the deluge were Peewee and Gossamer. Peewee, being a bird of elemental fire, had finally had enough of the wet anddried himself off in a single burst of flame. He grabbed Gossamer by her tail and hoisted her out of the water and over to a sheltered perch.

    Songhili surfaced next, wading ashore as his flippers rapidly changed back into legs. His enormous chocolate eyes looked guilty enough for the whole group.

    Next to surface was Spike. Dragons had much in common with sea serpents and could handle being submerged well enough. Being covered in pond lilies and wrapped in a ruined dress uniform, not so much. Even then things would have gone better for him, but unfortunately it seems that carp and dragons are mortal enemies(4), and the pond was the dwelling place of at least one hundred year old curmudgeonly goldfish with a chip on its metaphorical shoulder. Spike was just about to climb out of the water when he felt a fishy mouth close on his foot. With a yell of outrage he was yanked back into the water. A great deal of splashing and thrashing ensued.

    All around adults were moving to fish foals out of the water. Killdeer-adder thrashed his bedraggled way to the edge of the pond. An enormous eagle talon reached down and picked him up by the scruff of his neck. Killdeer found himself beak to beak with his family patriarch, who was wearing an expression of mingled confusion, annoyance and disappointment. "What do you have to say for yourself, Grandson?" the golden-winged Emperor said. His tail, King Cobra, arced over his back and added his own silent disapproval.

    Killdeer gave a meek and pitiful grin. "I... " He bumbled and wrung his claws together, hunching up in a ball. Adder did his best to curl up behind him and look like an unimportant appendage.

    The Gryphon Emporer seethed with indignation. "Blast it and pluck it, boy, can't your father and I take you anywhere without you making a scene??" Killdeer just curled up further, a kitten in the clutches of an angry cat.

    Nyx felt a surge of pity; it was obvious that Killdeer-Adder was petrified of his grandfather. It was heartbreaking; the casual, easy going personality was gone and all that was left was a cringing, knock kneed teenager.

    Doubloon popped up. "It wasn't his fault!" she said, radiating indignancy despite the lily pad draped over her head. She retracted a little when Emperor Eagle-Cobra's stern gaze met her own. "It was an accident, really."She turned to face Princess Celestia, who was magically hoisting a very penitent-looking Nyx out of the pond.

    Nyx was mortified. The fact that Celestia's face was completely impassive just made it worse; Nyx had no idea how much trouble she might be in."I'm sorry, Princess Celestia," she said to the towering princess. "It was supposed to be a tour of the castle and...it's all my fault."

    To Nyx's surprise, Doubloon waved a hoof. "No, wait!" she yelled. That got Celestia's attention, and everyone else's. Everyone fell silent (save for Spike and the koi fish who were thrashing up a rumpus in the water.) Nyx saw Doubloon visibly gulp. Then the sea-filly raised herself up and addressed the grownups as formally as if she were a tiny empress... and humbly as a penitent. "I want to apologize to everypony present," she said. "Please, shift any blame you'd put on your own foals to me....This was my fault. I told Princess Nyx--"

    "Notaprincess." "Shush."

    "--I told Princess Nyx that I hadn't had a chance to stretch my fins, and she was kind enough to lead us to an unattended pool. We didn't know the workers had opened the sluice gates on it. Killdeer-adder dove in to try and catch me before I got sucked down the drain and... um, well here we are. We apologize for interrupting your meeting, and we'll be on our way to clean up and--comb the pond moss out of our manes." She pulled at an aquatic weed stuck in her mane, making a face. "Again, we... I'm... very sorry."

    "Indeed," Songhili said. He looked to Celestia with his melting chocolate eyes. "If you would please be so gracious as to forgivethis misstep..."

    "Graciously spoken," Celestia said with a slight smile and a nod. "Well, no harm done and-- Spike! Stop punching that koi in the face!"

    "He started it!"

    Celestia rolled her eyes and magically hoisted the dragonling out of the water.Spike glared down at the angry fish and smacked his fist into his palm. "Next time, pal-- I'm bringin' my sautee pan," he said.

    "Ahem. As I was saying, no harm done," Celestia concluded. "Triton, she does your people credit."

    "Indeed," Triton said. He leaned forward and pulled the lily pad off the filly's head. "Though noble speeches are delivered better without water weed on one's head," he murmured in Doubloon's ear. Doubloon blushed a furious red but said nothing.

    At that moment princesses Twilight and Luna came trotting out onto the balcony. Twilight was levitating the book she had been given and chatting quietly but frantically with the lunar diarch. "I wanted to speak to you and Celestia about this book I received today... the implications in just what I've read--"

    Then she glanced up. There stood a good dozen royal and noble dignitaries of the assembly, looking alternately amused, annoyed, and discomfited. A handful of children of mixed races were strewn about, half in, half out of the koi pond. In the middle stood Celestia, with her most enigmatic smile yet on her face.... levitating two very familiar sodden lumps in her magical grasp.

    She wasn't raised by Celestia for nothing. The frozen half-smile never left Twilight's face as she leaned over and murmured in Luna's ear. "Inside... I'm already flinging myself off the balcony."

    "To no avail," Luna murmured back. "They'd catch you ere you hit the ground."

    "Princess!" Twilight said cheerily as she didn't feel. "What seems to have happened here...?"

    "It seems a few foals took an impromptu tour of the castle... and an accidental tour of the rainwater collecting system," Celestia said, amused.

    "Oh dear. Wast anyone hurt?" Luna said, concerned.

    "Nah," Killdeer said, getting to his feet and shaking off some of the water (to the sputtered outrage of those standing near and the facepalming exasperation of his grandsire.) He half laughed. "Was a ride and a half, though. Heck, you oughta charge five bits admission!"

    "Truly..." Luna deadpanned.

    Killdeer nodded, grinning. "Shyeah. Like the best slide ever, times ten. In hot weather it'd be totally mackin'!" He leaned toward Luna conspiratorially. "So long as you remember to duck before that tunnel on the fourth turn." He gave her a surfer kahuna salute-- then caught his grandfather's expression and shriveled like a raisin.

    Bemused, Luna nodded politely in return. Nyx might have been imagining it, but she thought she saw Luna give the waterfall overhead a very speculative look...

    Twilight plowed ahead. "Well then, um... back to business at hand, I guess," she said. She started to lift up the book. "The Firebird gave us... something of a gift, Celestia," she said. "I really wanted to take time to discuss it with you."

    From her levitated position, for the briefest moment Nyx saw a look of... of alarm flash through Celestia's eyes as she caught a glimpse of the book's cover and title. The look of alarm was echoed in Luna's eyes as well. "Ah, that," Celestia said with a cheerful tone only those who knew her well-- like Nyx-- would recognize as false. Celestia set Nyx and Spike down and hastily plucked the book from Twilight's magical grasp. "Ahh, mmhmm," she said. "This is something I've been meaning to discuss with you, in private." she closed the book firmly and floated it back to Twilight before Nyx could read the cover. Celestia looked at Twilight meaningfully. "But for now... could you do us a favor and take these children back to your quarters so they can clean up a little and rest up from their little misadventure? I will be in to see you after the banquet."

    "Yes. As will I," Luna interjected. Twilight started to speak. "In private." Twilight caught the hint. Nodding, she tucked the book under one wing and levitated her wayward children onto her back. They settled in with a squelch.

    "Sorry, Mom," Nyx said meekly.

    Twilight sighed. "Never mind. Come along, children," she said. "We can't have you running around all soaking wet, you'll catch... aheh. Well, most of you might catch cold," she amended, glancing at Doubloon with an apologetic smile.

    "What about her bowl?" Bright Eyes said. "Doesn't she need it?"

    "It's okay, I can stay out of the water for a little while," Doubloon said. "They just didn't want me flopping around the floor like a brain damaged seal."

    "Well we have a pool large enough to rest in," Twilight said. "One without any pony-sized drains." The foals giggled weakly. Come on."

    Killdeer and Adder picked the seapony filly up and draped her over their back. Meekly, and somewhat squishily, the herd of royal foals followed after the Princess of Friendship.

    Celestia turned back to her guests with a (what else?) sunny smile. "Now that that is taken care of," she said. "Where were we...?"

    1)The trick of course was to never ask.

    2)Unique as in 'recovered from the depths of the Everfree.'

    3)They weren't ignorant of what the plant could do... but Killdeer had seen the prankster plant and, as Adder put it dolefully, 'started getting IDEAS.'

    4)Something to do with an ancient bet about swimming to the top of some waterfall in Neighpon....

    Chapter 19

    "Hear ye, Hear ye. The 1,352nd assembly of the Celestial Council is now called to order." The firebird held its pose on the podium for a moment, radiant wings spread, before it continued. "We are hereby assembled to arbitrate the Nightmare Moon Incident, and the allegations of Breach of the Celestial Pact arising therefrom." The Firebird banged a gavel, actually a silver sphere clutched in one claw, on the podium.

    The Celestial Council was assembled in a large, circular room with no windows. It was brightly lit, with a vaulted ceiling, and painted in soft whites and golds. The members of the Council were seated around the perimeter of the room, facing inward toward the raised dais where the speaker's podium stood.The four princesses of Equestria, Celestia, Twilight, Luna and Nyx were all seated together. To Nyx's eyes, Celestia looked stern, but calm. Luna exuded an air of restrained neutrality. Twilight looked stressed out.

    Nyx figured she herself looked like she felt; like she was about to take the worst trip to the dentist in history.

    The glorious bird folded its wings and addressed King Triton. "King Triton, if you would relate the events related to the incident in question to the Council."

    King Triton, in his fourlegged alicorn form, rose from his seat and walked to the dais. Once he was standing next to the podium he cleared his throat and recited from memory. "at the 1,200nd assembly, the Celestial Pact was renegotiated, to shift the duties of oversight of the sun and moon from the Unicorn tribe to the newly born Avatars, the alicorns Celestia and Luna," he said. "Council records note that from that moment until the time of the 1318th assembly, their performance of their duties was exemplary. However, shortly thereafter the Princess Luna succumbed to... a combination of emotional breakdown and corruption by dark magic, becoming the entity known as Nightmare Moon." He cleared his throat awkwardly. "This was accompanied by a brief disruption of the solar-lunar cycle before Princess Celestia was forced to move and imprison the dual entity in the Moon by use of the Elements of Harmony. As the disruption was less than a day, it was determined to have been an internal affair and no assembly was called. From that time the solar-lunar cycle went without notable interruption until the Gryphon Empire's invasion of Equestriasome 300 years ago, when Princess Celestia, with the full knowledge of the Council, used an eclipse to hasten the defeat of the Gryphon armies." Nyx saw the Gryphon Emperor fluff his feathers up a bit in indignation at the reminder of that centuries-old embarrassment.

    "Then, 1,000 years precisely after her imprisonment, Luna/Nightmare Moon was released from her prison, and was subsequently cured of her 'possession' by the Elements of Harmony. This resulted in another brief disruption of the solar-lunar cycle, which again was deemed too minor to be of interest to the Council. Approximately a year later there was an incident with the Chaos entity Discord; again resolved after a brief interval and evaluated as too minor to note.

    "Which brings us to the event of note." Triton cleared his throat again. "Approximately two and a half to three years ago, the entity known as Nightmare Moon was reincarnated by arcane means, and proceeded to overthrow both Princess Luna and Princess Celestia, crowning herself Queen of Equestria and taking over rule of the Sun and Moon.

    "For two weeks the Sun was frozen in place at high noon over the Western Sea, while the Moon was...self evidently... left standing in the sky over Equestria... Despite abdicating the throne shortly thereafter, the effects remained. Resulting in far-reaching consequences which moved the Council voting, and approving, this assembly."

    The Firebird addressed the Council. "The consequences for the planetary equilibrium were, and are, far reaching. At this point I would ask that each Custodian please enumerate the consequences of this event, for the record and so that the entire Council has a fuller picture of the impact of these events.... beginning with King Triton, per his Dominion over the Tides and Currents of the sea."

    Nyx winced. Here it comes...

    "As the Chair-being requests." Triton bobbed his head. "The consequences to my own Domain were fairly extensive, if subtle. The absence of the influence of the Moon, first of all, led to a mistimed cessation of the tides, which was broadly detrimental to many ocean species dependent on their turning. The grunion mating cycle, for instance, was imperiled, as were countless tidal pools and species therein."

    "Grunion? Tidal Pools?" Nyx whispered to Twilight, mystified.

    "Later," Twilight whispered back. Thinking the better of it, she scooted some blank parchment over to Nyx along with a spare quill. "Write down any questions you have and we'll look them up later." Nyx nodded and took up the quill.

    "Fortunately my brother and I were able to compensate for the majority of it," Triton said. "Once we were aware of the absence of the Moon's pull with our own powers, keeping an approximation of the tides moving and balancing the temperatures of the ocean by temporarily altering the currents. We are still assessing the damage, if any, to the migratory patterns of the sea turtles and the whales in particular--"

    Luna blinked. "Brother?" she looked over at Celestia. "I didn't know he had a brother."

    "Adopted, actually," Celestia whispered back. "While you were away. The hippocampi have their own form of ascension it would seem. Triton hopes little Neptune will take over part of the burdens of the sea when his power fully matures." She paused. "He seems to have a particular affinity to the tides..."

    Luna glared at her sister suspiciously. "Just what are you suggesting?"

    "What? Nothing, nothing..." Celestia gave her a sly look. "After all he's too young for you. Barely a hundred and fifty..."

    "I care not for what you are insinuating," Luna hissed. "Just because you go pining after that chowder faced loon bideth nothing for me and any sibling he may have. I have no interest in thy matchmaking--"

    "Because your little black book is sooo full of numbers," Celestia riposted, rolling her eyes.

    Nyx gave her mother another puzzled look. "This is what happens when your dating pool is so small it comes with a hoof pump to inflate it," Twilight whispered to her wryly. Nyx didn't quite get it, but she had the feeling that Twilight was very, very lucky to have laid claim to Ink Spot before she became a princess.

    "I heard that," Luna said, starting to raise her voice.

    The rap of a gavel interrupted the quibbling. "Ladies," the Firebird said in his melodic voice. "If you please?" Sheepishly the alicorn princesses fell mute. "You were saying, Triton?"

    The sea king bobbed his head. "As I was saying, the presence of the sun also caused the ocean's surface to heat up, despite my own efforts using the tides to circulate the water with the cooler depths," he said. "This led to a near unending chain of tropical storms... but as the winds are not in my domain, the Gryphon Emperor would be better suited to speak on those matters, so I yield the floor to him."

    "By your leave...." The enormous golden gryphon said to Triton and fluffed out his feathers as he stood. He scowled officiously and began lecturing in the tone of a vaguely incensed professor. "As can be expected, the stationary sun and moon caused considerable disruption of the currents of the air. Along with the aforementioned chain of hurricanes, or typhoons, and tropical storms, the temperature differential between the dark side of the planet and the light side resulted in many of the normal winds and jet streams altering their course, particularly in the median between the day and night zones, where a belt of stationary storms brewed up. Also, there was a lesser effect--- most are not aware that the moon not only guides the tides, but works to stir the air as well, preventing clouds from aggregating on one side of the planet or the other..."

    "In my own domain," the Firebird sang, "it was notable that the stationary sun and moon disrupted many species' migratory paths. It was fortunate that this did not take place at the height of the changing of the seasons, when more species would have been beginning their annual courses...."

    "Though there were no calamities directly related to the effects of the frozen sun upon my own Domain of the Auroras," Zheng He said, fanning himself atop his cloud, "I was at pains to keep the Lodestar Field-- the, ah, magnetosphere-- strengthened beyond its norm, to shield the earth from the fixed gaze of the sun..." he paused thoughtfully. "It made for a most magnificent display, though."

    The white serpent, emissary of Jormungandr, shifted its coils as it spoke. "The changing of the course of the sun and moon had no direct effect upon Jormungandr's dominion over the North Star. It did however cause disruption to the polar caps, with the ice pack on one side melting back and the other side growing. By only a few tenths of a tenth, but on that scale more than enough to cause difficulty. There is even now an unseasonal increase of icebergs in the far Northern and Southern waters, which ships in those areas will find most troublesome...."

    "Psha, dey ain' done nuttin dat ol' Pele' would notice." The mistress of volcanoes tossed another garnet in her mouth like a bit of popcorn, lounging idly. "De Sun and De Moon, dey don' have much effect on Pele's domain." She shrugged. "O' course, it kinda make some of de folk livin' roun' de volcanoes go lolo." She waved a hand in a rocking motion. "Pele' shake dey island a little bit, no problem. Sun and Moon not move, no problem. Both at once?" Pele' rolled her eyes. "Hoo mama, dey go bomba lolo, hoop and holla dat de worl' gonna end, scream yell runaround, fall down--- heh, heckuva par-tay..."

    By the time the last of the Council had spoken, Nyx was in a state somewhere close to shell shock. It seemed like her ridiculously brief reign had caused damage or disruption to nearly every part of the world and nature and everything in between. A great oaken creature spoke in a voice like windblown leaves of growing cycles thrown off kilter and entire forests stunted, filled with trees full of wilting leaves; a creature that seemed like a cross between a squid and a party balloon droned about something called the ozone layer; A thing of snow crystals and frost hovered on glittering wings and tinkled of unseasonable warmth melting the icepack on the mountains, leaving the land below them dry and thirsty the next spring... literally everything in the world had been affected.

    Nyx was beyond feeling guilt. She had been driven so far into guilt that she had come out the other side into a state of numb hopeless doom. Outside she was as still as ice on a pond but her insides had been reduced to jelly-- and then that jelly had been broken up into globs with a spoon, then whipped with a steel whisk into a textureless goo. She didn't think she had anything solid left inside her.

    It seemed like an eternity, but at last the final member of the Council stopped talking. "Is there anything else to be added?" The Firebird sang.Noone spoke. "Then let that stand as a full record of the consequences of this incident. Princess Nyx?" Nyx jumped and yeeped. "Would you please step to the dais to give your testimony?"

    Nyx shot a frantic look at Twilight, then at Celestia and Luna. She looked up at the glamorous bird perched up on the podium, her mouth too dry to speak.

    The Firebird seemed to understand. "Do not fear," the Firebird said, its voice somewhat gentler. "We only wish for you to tell us your side of the story. Noone is going to shout or get angry, I promise you."

    Pele's warm chuckle rolled through the room. "G'wan, liddle wan," she said. "Ain' nobody goanna bite choo."

    Shooting Twilight one last apprehensive glance, Nyx trotted up to the dais. Someone-- she thought it was the Firebird-- gave her a magical boost up onto the platform. She stood up and looked around the room at the creatures, ponies and non, gathered. All of them staring, silent, demanding she justify herself. Some eyes were kind, but many were suspicious and accusing. "Go on," Triton urged gently.

    In a flash Nyx remembered Doubloon when she'd been called on the carpet; how calm she'd been, how regal-- how princess-like. Nyx couldn't do any less than that, could she? She gulped, took a deep breath, and started. "I can't really remember my time when Luna and I were Nightmare Moon. I mean, I can; but it's all faded and blurry, like an old dream. The first thing I really remember-- as me-- is waking up in a bramble bush in the Everfree Forest...."

    It took a long time for Nyx to tell her whole tale. Her birth, being taken in by Twilight, her abduction by Princess Celestia (here the solar princess blushed and looked not a little guilty), her falling into the clutches of the Nightmare-tainted cult, her transformation into Nightmare Moon, conquering Equestria, her rule as Queen Nightmare, her near loss and rescue of Twilight, the purging of the Cultists, the battle with the monsters of the Everfree, and finally her abdication and restoration to herself as Nyx the filly. "...And that's how things have been ever since," she finished. She blew out a puff of air and stood as tall as she could. "I didn't know about the Compact, or the Council, or any of that. Maybe that part of my memories was destroyed when I purged Spell Nexus of the Nightmare. I didn't even think about what the Sun would do to the other side of the world-- not that it matters; I could see what I was doing to Equestria and I nearly turned it into a big popsicle." She winced. "I'm Nyx now. Just Nyx. But I was Nightmare Moon, and I was responsible for all the damage that was done... and I'll do whatever you say I need to do to fix it all." She looked up at the Council, a foal in the presence of vast and ancient powers and feeling very small indeed. "...I just don't know how I can."

    She looked up. A very few of the Council looked incredulous, some looked suspicious, or even angry, but most looked amazed, as if they had been hanging on her every word. They looked like the Cutie Mark Crusaders did when she'd hosted movie night.Pele' was so mesmerized that she was sitting slackjawed, a clawful of gems hanging uneaten halfway to her mouth. Her seatmate gave her a poke. She scowled at the amused looks turned her way. "Wha? Issa good story," she said, jamming the gems into her mouth and crunching defiantly.

    The Emperor of the Gryphons harrumphed. "Yes, quite the gripping tale," he said gruffly. "So we are to conclude from this that the fault of these events lies solely at the hooves of the Alicorn Princesses."

    "Which we have never denied," Celestia retorted, unflappable as ever. "We stand together to bear the blame."

    "ALL of us," Luna interjected, looking pointedly at Nyx. "Together."

    Twilight looked Nyx in the eye. "Nopony is going to be left alone holding the bag." The words made Nyx feel warm.

    "Your loyalty to one another is commendable, as is your honesty in taking responsibility together," the Firebird sang. "Return to your parent, Nyx." Nyx gratefully hopped down off the dais and galloped to her mother. "Do the Alicorns have anything now they wish to add in their own defense? Any plea they wish to make?"

    The Treant groaned and creaked in protest. "Are we truly required to go through this?" he rustled. "They have admitted their fault, have they not?"

    The Gryphon Emperor spoke up. "Agreed," he said. "Do we really have to go through this rigamarole?"

    "Joo betta," Pele' huffed. "Is in da rools, brah."

    "Pele' is right, as much as it pains me to say it," Zheng He said. "Let them present their justification."

    Twilight was mystified. "What is this?" she whispered to Celestia.

    Celestia lowered her head to whisper in Twilight's ear. "The rules of the Council say that since we have admitted guilt, we have to be allowed to make a presentation--- anything we might say to justify our actions, or that might affect what the Council proposes."

    Twilight nodded thoughtfully. "A chance to beg for leniency," she muttered.

    Nyx squirmed unhappily at her side. Her stage fright jitters were finally giving way to a foal's pouty resentment at being disciplined. All those super-powerful people, just looking for a way to punish them.... "It's not fair," she whispered suddenly. "I bet they've all made mistakes too, and tons of 'em. Look at what Pele' did to Krackle-- Crappy--"

    "Krakatoa?" Twilight blinked. Pele' had been mixed up in that historical eruption? Of course she had... Twilight's brow furrowed as an idea began to form.

    "Do you have any such presentation to make?" the Firebird asked.

    "Actually--" Celestia started to say, when Twilight stepped in front of her.

    "Yes, yes we do." There was a subtle groan from the entire room. "But with the indulgence of the Council, I-- we-- will need time to prepare it." The groans that went up at this were almost comical; several Council members could be seen slumping in their seats or rolling their eyes.

    The Firebird studiously ignored them. "How long?"

    Twilight thought a moment. "A week at least," she said finally. The groans redoubled. The Firebird had to pick up the silver sphere and bang it on the podium quite emphatically. "And I will need one other thing..."

    "Yes?"

    "The records of the prior assemblies of the Council," she said. "All of them."

    The Firebird paused, actually looking apprehensive at the request. "All of them?" At Twilight's affirmative, the venerable bird nodded. "Very well. We shall provide you with copies from our archives by dragonfire.this Council is adjourned, and shall reconvene one week from now. Till then, " The Firebird rapped three times with the silver ball, and the Council members began rising to their feet and leaving the chamber, more than a few grumbling unhappily about this dragging out of affairs.

    As they made to leave, Celestia lowered her head and spoke under her voice again. "Twilight, would you seriously mind telling me what you have in mind doing this?"

    "Trust me," Twilight reassured her. "Right from the start there's been something about this whole affair that seemed... wonky." She tapped her chin with a hoof. "And I think I have an idea what it is."

    Nyx and Twilight returned to their chambers to find a rather startling state of disarray. The living room nook was filled with stacks of documents; folders, bound volumes, and scrolls. The Quartet were in a tizzy, trying to rearrange the mess around a bemused Ink Spot. Spike was laid out flat, groaning in agony. Ink Spot and Cherry Blossom was doing their bit to tend to him. "What happened?" Twilight exclaimed.

    Ink Spot looked up at her apologetically. "Just a minute ago, Spike said something about checking the inbox, and... some mail came through for you," he said. He gestured at the stacks of documents around him. "....All at once."

    Twilight and Nyx cringed. The visible volume of paper and parchment easily outmassed the first 'bulk delivery' Spike had brought through by a sizable portion. "But I thought that new spell on Spike's fire was supposed to prevent this sort of thing," Twilight said.

    Spike looked up and groaned. "U-urgent rush delivery," he said weakly. "No hold..."

    "I guess it needs adjusting," Ink Spot said lamely.

    Nyx wrinkled up her nose. "What's that smell?" she said. There was a sulphurous odor in the air, like cheap fireworks.

    "Some of them... didn't come out the right way," Ink Spot said, cringing.

    "It was terrible, your Highness," Cherry Blossom said, distraught. She rubbed the dragon's tummy and plied him with a glass of ginger beer. "He started screaming and flames started shooting out of both ends and---" It was then that Twilight noticed that Spike's rump was planted hip deep in bags of ice.

    Twilight grimaced, eyes wide. "Eee-Yiiii."

    "M-mistake in the zip code..." Spike burped.

    "How bad is it?" Nyx said sympathetically.

    "Remember when Scootaloo tricked us into eating those 'El Diablo" peppers?"

    "Ooooo," Nyx said, grimacing and dancing on her hooftips in sympathy agony.

    "Take a note; No spicy foods for the rest of the week," Twilight said to Sea Foam. The hoofmaid nodded soberly.

    "What is all this, anyway?" Ink Spot said, gesturing at the stacks.

    "I'm guessing most of it is the records I requested from the Council," Twilight said. She started magically sorting and stacking alongside her fiancee as she explained the outcome of the day's hearing. "There is an obvious problem here," she said. "If my suspicions are right, it will be in these records of the Council's decisions. It's a problem that's been staring them in the face for millennia, but they just don't see it... and if we can point it out-- maybe we can buy leniency for Equestria. Or better yet, find a solution."

    "Oh, really?" Ink Spot said, amused. He always loved how focused and confident his marefriend got when she started chewing over a scholastic puzzle."So what obscure-yet-obvious problem are you going to be looking for, precisely?"

    Twilight told him. Ink Spot blinked. "Of course. That's brilliant, dear!" He leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "That will certainly knock them off their high horses."

    "Let's not count our chickens just yet," Twilight said. She levitated several stacks of paperwork. "I want to get some hard documentation first. Let's take this up to the office on the second balcony, I'll work on it there--"

    "We'll work on it there," Ink Spot said firmly. "You forget I'm an assistant editor for an international publishing house. This sort of thing is right up my alley." He tried to levitate another equal-sized heap, grunting with strain. "Ahem. Heh." He levitated a much smaller stack. "Lead on m'lady..."

    Twilight smiled but said nothing.

    Nyx, who had been rifling through the assorted stacks, came galloping up. "How can I help?" she said brightly.

    "That's all right dear," Twilight said. "Ink Spot and Spike and I--" at a groan from Spike she amended herself. "Ink Spot and I will handle this. You go on."

    Nyx scowled. "But I wanna help," she said. "I gotta help. I promised I would." It struck home again for Twilight; no matter how she might have been absolved, Nyx still saw the calamities of the Nightmare as solely her fault... and probably always would, to some degree. It was good that she wanted to take responsibility for her past, Twilight supposed; but it didn't change the fact that a little filly would be little help for this sort of thing-- and probably just be underhoof. "Well, sweetie..."

    "Gee, and here I was thinking you would be more interested in the package from your uncle," Ink Spot said idly. A stray bolt of magic from his horn fetched a pair of circular canisters from the pile of regular mail next to the sofa. Puzzled, Nyx took the two flat circular containers in her magic and looked at them. There was a card attached. She read it:

    Hey Nyxy Sticks!

    Thought you might like a movie about now to cheer you up. No spoilers, I haven't watched it yet.

    Love,

    Uncle Shiny.

    When she read the titles on the canisters, Nyx sucked in a gasp that nearly emptied the room of air. "Omigoshomigoshomigosh!--- it's-- but Part Two doesn't come out for another MONTH! No wait, it's BOTH Part One and Part Two! Oh can we set up the projector, can we can we pleeeeeease?" she was practically vibrating a foot off the floor, eyes gleaming with excitement-- then she came down with a crash. She cast a despairing look at the files. "But... the appeal thingy. It has to be done first, doesn't it..." the tragic look on her face as she set the film reels down was virtually operatic.

    Twilight bit her lip to keep from grinning and mentally thanked Ink Spot for giving her an opening. "Well, this appeal with the Council is very important and it calls for a little delegation of responsibility," she said. "We still have the reparations discussion with the kingdoms of the Western Sea, too....I think while Ink Spot and I work on the files, you could be helping out on the diplomatic front."

    "Diplomatic?" Nyx said, nose scrunching.

    "Well yes," she said. " I think it would smooth a lot of things over if you invited the diplomat's youngsters over for a screening of your movies. Some popcorn and soda and other snacks, a fun movie... think of it as your first diplomatic social event."

    "Hey, yeah!" Nyx practically lit up from within. "Oh, this'll be great-- Do you really think it would help?" she said, suddenly suspicious.

    "Positive," Twilight said confidently.

    Nyx beamed. "Omigosh I don't know where to start--" she picked up the reels in her magic and pranced in a circle.

    Snow Cap came up behind her, chuckling. "Well, your Highness, we should probably start with some invitations. And fetching a film projector from the royal library. Come along.." She led the prancing filly off to arrange her party, tossing a wink over her shoulder.

    Ink Spot and Twilight chuckled the entire time they were shipping the papers up to the office nook. They had just hauled/teleported the last stack up the stairs when White Dove let loose with a shriek. Startled, they dropped what they were holdingand got ready to gallop to the rescue when the mare emerged from the bathroom. She was holding a hoof-mirror in one wing and looking rattled. "Your Highness? Your makeup mirror wishes to speak to you," she said, passing it over. "Ahem."

    Twilight held the mirror up. Instead of her own face, the mirror showed the face of her library assistant, Roller Reel.

    Roller Reel was a scrawny teenage crystal pony with a scruffy black mane, a sparkly white coat and a predilection for black t-shirts with various Grimdark images and logos. Twilight and Nyx had met him in the Crystal Empire on a trip to renovate the Crystal Empire library, and employed him to help out in the budding audio-visual department. True to his name and cutie mark he had proven to be a virtuoso with movies, film, and cameras of all sorts, and he had ended up following them back to Ponyville when his cousin Bright Eyes had moved there. He was now ensconced in the Golden Oaks library as Twilights number three assistant.(1) He had stayed behind in Ponyville to manage the library in Twilight Sparkle's absence. "Hey, yer Maj," his reflection said. "Sup?"

    "Roller," Twilight said, annoyed. "What are you doing in my mirror?"

    "Hey," he said. "Mebbe you missed it but the folks round here have been on pins and needles about the hearing. Your mane gang have been bugging me to find out how today went, and nopony's responding at YOUR end to my mail, so I hooked up an Amethyst-Agate Magic Mirror array(2) to try and tune you in." He grinned. "Guess I got lucky."

    Twilight sighed; she should have expected this. Her friends, due to all the obligations back home, had left Canterlot for Ponyville the day before. "I wouldn't call it lucky," Twilight said sarcastically. "Do you know how traumatizing it probably was for White Dove to have a mirror yell at her while she was in the water closet?"

    "Hey I apologized..."

    "And we really shouldn't go using the AAMM Array until the official announcement and release," she said. One of the shortcomings of the AAMM Array was that it could, conceivably, tune in to ANY mirror, or even any reflective crystalline surface. The Princesses were trying to hold off on releasing the communications system until they had either come up with a less indiscriminate form, or preferably a reliable way to block it.

    "We know, we know," Roller said, rolling his eyes. "So give us the scoop, already."

    A second face crowded in next to his. "Yes, darling, don't leave us all guessing," a familiar fashionista said. "I'm on more pins and needles than my dress dummies!"

    A rainbow mane crowded in. "Yeah, spill it, before Gertie Gossip here busts a seam," Rainbow Dash said.

    Rarity gasped. "I am NOT a gossip!" she said, offended.

    "Oh please," Applejack's offscreen familiar twang was twice as heavy as usual. "You got a bigger appetite for the juicy stuff than a flock of vampire fruit bats." Explosive giggles and snickers could be heard in the background. Rarity blew a ladylike raspberry at the others.

    "Oh do go on and tell us how it went, Twilight," Rarity said. "Even if these heathens can't appreciate the value of being socially informed..."

    Giggling, Twilight told them all that had transpired. "Oh dear, the poor dear must be wrung out after that," Rarity said when she heard how they'd put Nyx up on the stand.

    "Actually, she's doing pretty well," Twilight said. "She's been a real little trooper."

    "Well good for her," Rainbow Dash said. "Sucks being called on the carpet. You guys stick it to 'em, you hear?"

    Twilight smirked. "I fully intend to," she said. "I don't mean to rush you, but I've got a lot of work to do." She lowered her voice. "Thank goodness Shiny still has a good sense of timing. He sent her those movies she's crazy about, and she's getting ready to host a movie night for the diplomat's children. That'll keep her preoccupied while Ink Spot and I do this research..."

    Speak of the devil; at that moment Nyx came clip-clopping up the stairs. "Mom?" she said, biting her lip. "There's no way we could invite the Crusaders too, is there?" It sounded more like a statement than a question.

    "Not really," Twilight said apologetically. "Well, maybe, if you wanted to put it off a day, so they could have time to get here--"

    Nyx gnawed on her lip. "No, that wouldn't work either," she said. "They can't all afford train tickets. I could SEND them tickets with my royal allowance, I suppose, but it would still take too long, and some couldn't come anyway, and... meh." She scrunched up her nose. "I could just run the movie a second time, later, at the library...?"

    Roller suddenly yelped as he was pushed out of the mirror frame by an eager pink pony. "Hey, wait, did somepony say party?"

    "A movie party. For my friends here at the castle," Nyx said after she got over her surprise. "But-- I don't wanna leave my friends back in Ponyville out either..."

    Pinkie rubbed her chin, thinking. She grinned suddenly. "Ooo, I got an idea. How about you have the party in BOTH places? You host the Canterlot side; and Roley and the girls and I--" she picked up Roller Reel and smooshed his cheeks into a smile with her hooves-- "will host the Ponyville side! All the Crusaders, right?" She looked over her shoulder. "Girls, you in?"

    "That sounds like it might be fun.."

    "Yeah, awesome!"

    "Well, Sweetiebelle will certainly enjoy it..."

    "Sounds like a hootenanny all right..."

    Nyx looked hopefully at Twilight. "I... don't see why not," she said. Both Nyx and Pinkie cheered.

    "Perfectaroonie! I'll go get my jumbo soda cooler and my popcorn-zooka!" Pinkie hopped away, leaving Roller to collapse to the floor.

    "--But how will you show the movie in both places at the same time?" Twilight asked.

    Roller got to his feet, rubbing his sore cheek. A slow grin spread across his face. "Hang on... I got an idea for that..."

    1)Which he grumbled about frequently. "The baby dragon I can deal with," he said frequently. "But I gotta be subordinate to a friggin' OWL?"

    2)Named for the two ponies that invented it. For those who recall them from "Nyx's Family"--- married last autumn, one foal on the way.

    Chapter 20

    "...and I... am DEATH!"

    The enormous dragon flew, soaring down on the helpless village on the lake. Fire licked around his jaws. he swooped in and--

    the credits began rolling.

    "Aaaaugh!" Childish shouts and groans of dismay, and not a little loose popcorn, flew up in the air as the closing music played. Jeers and laughter greeted the painful reminder that this was only part TWO of the trilogy. "Argh, more waiting," Nyx moaned, her face in her hooves.

    There was good natured laughter and cheering from all the children present from both sides of the party. Roller Reel had come through brilliantly. With some effort and two donated mirrors-- One of Rarity's dressing mirrors set up at the library, and a similar sized one from the royal dressing room set up behind the sofa on the first floor of the Tower--- they had managed to set up a magic mirror array so that both halves of the party could see each other, as if through a window.

    But the real brilliance was with the projector. A small magic mirror, set up at a 45 degree angle right in front of the projector lens, was now functioning as a beam splitter-- sendingthe movie up onto the screen in Twilight's tower, and a duplicate projector beam out of another tiny mirror and up onto the movie screen at the Ponyville library, dozens of miles away.

    The party was a success. All the diplomats' children attended; many, Twilight suspected, at the urging of their parents, hoping that little pitchers had big ears and might overhear something exploitable. Killdeer-adder, Songhili, Gossamer, even Doubloon in her wheeled bowl-chair had come. There were a few others in attendance; a pair of phoenix chicks who burned with a peculiar blue flame perched with Peewee-- presumably from the Firebird's entourage; a young ki-rin named Po. He was not in fact related to Zheng He, but was actually one of the minor servants to the Emperor of the ki-rin. Zheng He apparently doted on him and had urged him to go.

    On the other side of the mirror, the library was packed to the walls with the membership of the CMC. It seemed they had been recruiting; Bright Eyes was there, as well as a little fellow with a propeller beanie and a brand new CMC badge.(1)The rest of the Bearers of the Elements were present as well, riding herd on the excitable children.

    The movie party had been a smashing success on both sides. Popcorn had been munched by the tubful,(2) s'mores had been noshed and sodas had been drunk, and the antics on the screen of Bilbo Burro and his companions had kept both crowds of foals riveted. They'd roared with laughter at Bilbo's pratfalls, shivered in fright as the heroes had battled the giant spiders, and whooped with excitement at that rolling battle down the barrel-filled river. The highlight of the evening had been when the terrible dragon Smoak had surfaced from the mountain of treasure in its cave behind a petrified Bilbo, looming... and Adder, in a sudden mischievous impulse, had let his scaly side brush up against Nyx's neck and said "Boo!" in her ear. The shriek had been spectacular and Nyx's popcorn, under the impulse of a terror-fueled magic surge, had erupted straight up like a geyser. The scream and popcorn burst had triggered a chain reaction of shrieks, yelps, and popcorn tossing across the room and right through the magic mirror. For a brief instant both the tower and the library had looked like an explosion in a popcorn factory. The only reason Killdeer-Adder hadn't gotten more than a brief drubbing ("It wasn't me! It was him!") was that everypony was too frantic to not miss any of the movie...

    The children lounged back, soaking in the afterglow of the double feature ("There and Back Again," followed immediately by "The Wasteland of Smoak") and about a billion calories of junk food. "Man, this... is... awesome," Killdeer sighed blissfully. He let out a little popcorn burp. "Best diplomatic event I've been to, no holds barred."

    "Really?" Nyx said in undisguised delight.

    "He's certainly not lying," Adder said. He got an evil smirk on his serpentine face. "Probably because this is the first soiree he's gotten away with farting all night...!"

    Cries of disgust and a hail of pillows and sofa cushions greeted this announcement. Killdeer awked as he was pounded beneath an onslaught of feather-stuffed doom. "I guess I spoke too soon" Adder managed to yell gleefully before a pillow from a divan nailed him. "He's lying!" the muffled shout came from beneath the instant pillow pile.

    Adder periscoped up out of the pillows and breathed a sigh of satisfaction. "Of course I'm lying," he said. "But you didn't think I wasn't going to get revenge for all the times you dutch ovened me? Really," he told the others. "It can be a nightmare being attached to this guy's butt..."

    "My, how classy," Doubloon said drolly. She was giggling so hard she'd started hiccuping.

    "Lie or not I'm hitting the air 'fresher," Spike said. He had recuperated enough to join in the party... even though his seat cushion was still supplemented with an ice bag.He whipped out a can of "Floral Essence" and began spritzing the air liberally.

    There was a rap from the mirror behind them. "Hey Nyx," Scootaloo said. "We just wanted to say it's been totally awesome!"

    Flitter appeared next to her in the mirror. "Yeah," the changeling filly said. "But Roller says we gotta disconnect the mirror now, because reasons." She rolled her eyes. "So I guess we're all wishing you goodnight now..."

    A collective "goodnight" came from the CMC.

    "You too," Nyx said, waving. "I miss you all."

    "We'll see you in class on Monday," Applebloom said. "Hang tough, pardner." The mirror flickered, then all it reflected was the inside of the tower.

    "Those guys were fun!" Gossamer said.

    Nyx nodded. "Best ponies in the world," she said. Shoot, the three ringleaders of the CMC had helped save her from herself... and the world from endless night, by extension.

    Really, though," Doubloon said. "It has been the most fun I've ever had at at a 'diplomatic' or 'political' anything." She added air-quotes with her hooves. Then hiccuped again.

    "I don't know about political...." Songhili said. "But this has been tremendous fun."

    "It has been... a most unusual evening," Po, the timid little ki-rin, said. "But... yes, great fun."

    "Yeah," Gossamer said, lounging in an empty potato chip bowl. "No fussy clothes, no fussy food, no fussy little toothpicks in everything..."

    Killdeer resurfaced. "No fussy people..." he added with a snort. "No snobs, no snooty servants, no crabby parents--"

    "Hanging out with people who are fun, and you actually like," Doubloon said. "It's... just nice to be someplace where everything doesn't have to be gold plated and smothered in caviar."

    Nyx noticed Po looked confused and upset. "What's wrong, Po?" she asked.

    Po looked down, folding his forehooves. "It is not for me to say," he said deferentially, refusing to meet anyone's eye.

    Snorts and raspberries greeted this. "C'mon..." "Spill it!" "What is it?"

    Nyx remembered what Zheng He had said as he had dropped off the bewildered and intimidated young serving ki-rin. "Po, remember what Zheng He said," she urged. "'You are here to learn, and to learn you must walk as an equal.' You can't learn anything if you're afraid to SAY anything."

    Po hesitated, then relented. "You are all... confusing to me. You are princes and princesses, children of wealth and power and royalty and privilege--- everything so many people desire." He cast his eyes down. "Everything a mere hoofservant like myself could never dream of having. And yet you are unhappy with all of it."

    A brief silence fell over the group as the various children of emperors, princesses, and nobility began to feel guilt well up in them. Till Adder snorted. "You think it's a privilege? To be constantly criticized? To have everyone judging you, bossing you, telling you how you should live?" Adder gestured with his head all around the room. "Yeah, all this posh stuff and servants and fancy clothes and such is nice, but any trade merchant can get that stuff. And what good is having all the cake in the world if you can't eat it without everyone silently judging every bite you take? What good is it to be a son of a king when even the servants look down their beaks at you?"

    Po looked scandalized. "I would never look down on His Lordship Zheng He," he said, shrinking back from the very thought.

    Nyx looked at him. "Well... what if Zheng He did something weird, like--" she kicked a loose kernel on the carpet. "Like eating popcorn in the middle of court?"

    "Or went out in the garden and made mud pies?" Gossamer offered. "Or ate with the wrong fork, or picked his teeth at the table?"

    "Or caught the flu, got buzzed on too much cold medicine, and took a dump in a ceremonial urn?" Killdeer said. The others stared at him. He looked sheepish. "It was a bad month," he said, scratching the feathers on his neck awkwardly.

    "Or maybe," Doubloon said softly, "Maybe if he just fell in love with a peasant farm girl and married her?" That seemed to get through to Po. You could almost see the thoughts whirring in his head as he imagined the venerable Emperor of his homeland 'debasing himself' with a mere commoner for a wife-- as many would call it.

    "I perceive, now," Po said after a long moment, "That a crown, no matter how gilded, it comes with chains as well."

    "Grownups are stupid," Nyx said with finality. "They think they want power and privilege and prestige... when what they really want is to be free. To be left alone, to live the way they want without being afraid that somepony else is just going to take it all away." She rested her head on her forehooves.

    Gossamer sighed. "That's so true," she agreed. "I'm bummed now. Is there any more S'mores left? I need some chocolaty goodness to cheer me up." Nyx chuckled and stuck a leftover s'more in Gossamer's hooves. The flutterpony happily buried her face in the gooey treat.

    The Quartet were suddenly there, stepping among the children sprawled about the floor. Magic deftly swept up the crumbs and empty cups and other detritus. "Will your Highness' guests be staying for the night?" Cherry Blossom asked Nyx smoothly.

    "Will you?" Nyx asked them. "We could make it a sleepover..."

    "Yeah," Spike said. "Sit up late, swap some manly stories, and in the morning, I'm making waffles!" He flashed a cheesy grin. Peewee chirruped and rubbed his feathery belly in anticipation.

    The others looked at each other. Guilty memories of various pointed instructions from their parents flashed through their heads...

    Killdeer was the first to break the shared vow of silence. "Umm... Nyx, you should kinda know... our parents all told us to, um, spy on you, sorta," he said lamely.

    The others reluctantly nodded-- even Po. "Even I was told to keep my ears and eyes open for what I might learn." he said.

    Spike looked up from feeding the Phoenix chicks marshmallow bits. (It melted and made their beaks all gooey. It was hysterical.) "Yyeah, we kinda figured that," he said dryly. "We're not as new to the royalty game as we look."

    "Besides, one of my best friends is Sweetiebelle. And her big sister Rarity is the biggest gossip in Ponyville," Nyx said, her expression deadpan. "Sweetie once told me that every time she visits a friend, the minute she gets home Rarity squeezes her like an orange." Embarrassed giggles went up from the group at that.

    "Well, if you know and you're still okay with us," Doubloon said, blushing a bit. "I would like to say."

    Nyx grinned. "Sure!...I guess you could sleep in the bathing pool? It's got to be more comfortable than that bowl." She pointed at Doubloon's chair.

    Doubloon smiled. "Yes, I guess it would be."

    "And what about you?" Nyx said to the pudgy little selkie.

    "Oh, no worries for me," Songhili said cheerfully. "I can sleep on sea or shore, so either is fine. Doubloon needs it more, so I'll sleep dry tonight."

    "Okay," Nyx said. "Gossamer, what about--" marshmallowy snores from the empty popcorn bowl answered her. "I guess she's staying," Nyx said as the others giggled. "And you, Killdeer?"

    "Dear Grandpop: my covert surveillance of the new branch of the Equestrian royalty isn't finished," he said. "So I'll be staying til the morning to obtain some highly sensitive and super-important information."

    "What's that?" Doubloon asked.

    "What dragon waffles taste like," he said. He yawned and stretched. "G'night." He curled up in a pile of cushions and dozed off.

    Adder looked down on his dozing brother and tsked. "Always thinking with our stomach," he muttered.

    Spike watched him, curious. "You don't fall asleep when he does?" he asked.

    "No, of course not," Adder said. "What's the point of having an extra pair of eyes to keep watch if they doze off when you do? Don't worry, I'll knock off in a little while. I need a lot less sleep than he does."

    "Weird. Cool, but weird," Spike said.

    Two of the Quartet quickly took Doubloon to the bath to make her comfortable, while the others passed out blankets and comforters to the others so they could bed down where they were. They departed, gathering up the last of the trash from the party as they went. The chatter soon died down and the little gathering of royals dozed off one by one.

    Nyx found herself next to Songhili. She looked over at the selkie. Before, his huge brown eyes had looked cute; in the near dark they looked so deep and soulful. The memory of what she'd been told about his island, his home, swelled inside her. "Songhili?" she whispered. "I'm so sorry for what happened to your home. I'm so, so sorry." She swallowed. "I promise, no matter what happens, no matter what the Council decides--"

    A fuzzy monkey-seal paw pressed over her mouth. "It's all right," Songhili said. "You don't have to. I don't blame you...."

    She pushed the paw away. "But I want to," she said. "I don't know if I can do it, but I promise I'll make it right."

    Songhili's chocolate-brown eyes glimmered in the firelight. "Thank you," he said, finally.

    Up on the upstairs balcony, Twlight listened in as the children below slowly settled down for the night, their chattering slowly fading to idle murmuring and then to quiet snores. She shook her head and knocked back more of her mug of coffee; the night was only beginning for her.

    The work was going fairly quickly. Once they knew what to look for,she and Ink Spot (with considerable help from Snowcap and White Dove) had gone through about a fourth of the records already. What they had learned already was proving incredibly alarming, but it was going to mesh perfectly with Twilight's plan.

    Cherry Blossom rejoined them in the office nook. "They're down for the evening," she said simply with a maternal smile. She looked over the stacks of paperwork and the freshly written scrolls that constituted their work so far. "Are you finding what you're looking for, your Highness?"

    "Everything I wanted. More than I wanted, in fact," Twilight said. "I was planning on searching these Council meeting minutes to find out how many of them were convened due to natural disasters caused by one or more of the members."

    "And how many were there?" Cherry Blossom said.

    Sea Foam sidled past with a stack of folders balanced on her back. "So far, nearly all of them," she said.

    Ink Spot was at one of the mahogany desks plunked down in the nook. He looked up from the files he was perusing. "In retrospect it seems obvious that such calamities would be the main reason for their calling an assembly," he said. "Still, it's shocking to realize how many..."

    "Most natural disasters in the world are just that-- natural," Twilight said. "A consequence of chance. Others, like Pele's eruptions or earthquakes, are necessary ventings of imbalances... the Custodians releasing built up forces, or inevitable synchronicities like eclipses. But others..." She shook her head. "Epic tidal waves. Hurricanes. Major earthquakes. Ice ages... there's a file here that indicates the great freeze that the hearthwarming pageant commemorates may have been initially triggered by a screwup on the part of Jormungandr.For all their efforts at keeping the natural forces of our world in harmony, the Council has ended up working at cross-purposes..."

    "And they've been running things this way since... eternity past?" Cherry Blossom said, vaguely horrified.

    "That's just it," Twilight said. "They haven't." She picked up a nearby book levitated it over. Cherry Blossom read the title: DOCUMENTED FUNDAMENTALS OF PLANETARY POST-ORBITAL ASTROMECHANICS

    Curious, she took the book in her magic and flipped through it. Cherry Blossom and the rest of the Quartet were not uneducated; it only took the first few pages to get the implications. "That's right," Twilight said when she saw the expression on Cherry Blossom's face. "That is a copy of a book tens of thousands of years old, that documents how our world was before the Council of Celestial Stewards. The most we had before that book was bits and pieces of old folklore, half-forgotten bits that most ponies think was poetic license in ancient tales. This... this is the whole story."

    "At one time the forces the Council oversees more or less ran themselves, balanced one another. But now they only exist at all because of the Council."

    Cherry Blossom looked stunned. After a moment she set the book down back in its place. "What does this mean?"

    "It means that the world has something of an impassible problem," Ink Spot said. "The Council, despite its members making constant mistakes... is irreplaceable. With the Council we get a world where the forces of nature clash with each other, fail to work together and cause natural disasters at the whims of powerful, but all too limited beings..."

    "Without the Council, we have no forces of nature at all," Twilight said. "No sunrises and sunsets. No tides, no currents, no tectonic movement, no magnetic field protecting us from the winds of space--- just random forces spiraling out of control or fading away to nothing."

    Sea Foam gulped. "A ship with no sail, rudder, compass or chart," she said. "Cast adrift and only a matter of time before it founders."

    That analogy is more apt than you know, Twilight thought. "At the least, we have an angle to demand leniency," she said. "But I'm still at a loss for a fix to the bigger problem." She waved a hoof. "Sooner or later-- and history apparently is on the side of sooner-- another disaster is going to occur. A war, or another Nightmare Moon, or just one Domain falling out of accord with another. Or just a stupid mistake..." She stamped her hoof, her wings fidgeting.

    The Quartet all traded looks. "I think maybe you're borrowing trouble, your Highness," White Dove said gently. "All that's really needed right now is for you to get Equestria through this mess, her and now."

    "But that's just the problem!" Twilight stamped a hoof. "All these disasters, all of them--" she swept out a wing to encompass the stacks of files "-- are because nopony got together and worked things out for the long term. If we do things the same old way, the Council will make some decisions, fuddle around with a few of its rules of order, and we'll all go right back where we started. What good will it do Equestria if we solve just this problem, only to have it turn around and bite us in the cutie marks again a hundred years from now?"

    Ink Spot came up behind her and stood next to her. He nuzzled her neck. "What good will it do us if our Princess burns herself out trying to solve all the problems in the world at once?" he chided.

    Twilight sulkily tried to shrug him off at first, but finally leaned in to his nuzzles, returning them with a few of her own. "I guess you're right," she said. "We've got enough problems as it is; there's no sense heaping more on my plate... at least not for now."

    "That's right," Ink Spot said. "Don't think of it as giving up. You're just putting that problem on the back burner for now." He passed her a fresh mug of coffee and gave her a kiss. "Come on, let's just finish collating this summary." The two of them wended their way back over to the desks.

    Morning found Nyx's family and guests seated around the dining table as a happily whistling Spike had dished up heaping stacks of waffles. The Quartet moved with clockwork efficiency around the table, pouring juice, fetching butter and syrup, and dishing out more golden waffles to empty plates. The groggy children cheerfully dug in. Killdeer-Adder in particular blissfully noshed their way through a nearly foot-high stack. "I see you like my waffles," Spike chuckled.

    "No, no, these are not waffles," Adder said between bites. "These are golden, crispy, fluffy slices of heaven, my friend."

    "Mmprhor," Killdeer agreed with his beak full.

    Nyx looked up the table at Twilight. "Did you find what you were looking for?" she asked.

    Twilight and Ink Spot were sitting together at the head of the table. They had been up most of the night pulling together the summary for the Princess' appeal; they looked tired, but confident. "Pretty much," Twilight said. "I didn't get everything done that I wanted, but-- enough for now." She was actually feeling a bit amused; Sea Foam had been photographing the party the whole night, and had even sneaked about with a camera just before sunrise and snapped dozens of photos of the royal children sleeping or waking up or generally just looking adorable. Doubloon floating on her back in the bathing pool, hooves folded on her belly; Po sleeping curled up like a fawn in a glade; Gossamer sprawled across a pillow, sawing logs; Killdeer passed out with his rump up on the couch and his face buried in pillows on the floor, with Adder hanging like a limp garden hose over the back of the couch and snoring....Nyx in particular was going to be absolutely mortified when she saw the photo of her and the Selkie pup; at some point in the night Nyx had rolled over in her sleep and snuggled up to him. The photo showed a sleeping Nyx hugging him to her like a chubby teddy bear while he grinned and winked at the camera.

    She was about to ask for somepony to pass the syrup when a golden glow filled the picture window. The light swelled into a golden sphere, flew in through the glass as if it wasn't there, and then faded away, revealing Princess Celestia standing in the middle of the floor. "Good morning, my little ponies-- and others," she said with a smile. She waved them back to their seats as they hastily rose and started to bow. "Oh no no, go back to your breakfasts," she said.

    "What brings you by, your Highness?" Ink Spot said.

    "Care for some waffles?" Spike asked.

    "In reverse order, yes I would, Spike, and I came by to check on Twilight's progress with the leniency appeal," Celestia said. She took a seat at the other end of the table.(3) Snow Cap quickly had a plate of buttery waffles in front of her, and Sea Foam laid out an array of jellies and syrups. Celestia daintily poured on the blueberry syrup and took up a forkful. "Mmmm. Excellent as always, Spike. I should make that recipe a national treasure." Spike scoffed and blushed, pleased.

    "Well, I haven't properly annotated or cross referenced everything, and we really need to index it but-- I think we have something that will keep the Council from getting too punitive," Twilight said. She levitated a sheaf of papers down the table to Celestia. Celestia flipped through the pages, speed reading. Her eyebrows rose.

    "Ouch," she said simply. "Twilight, my dear student, I had no idea you could be so ruthless," she said. Twilight scrunched her nose, not sure if that was a compliment or not. "Yes, indeed, this should work with the Council." Celestia sighed and sent the papers back. "Now if it was just so easy to deal with the Assembly..."

    Nyx frowned. "Wait... this isn't all together?"

    Celestia smiled and shook her head. "You recall we have two conundrums here," she said. "The Council of Celestial Stewards are here about, well, about how we princesses are doing our jobs. The Assembly are the kings and rulers of the nations in the Western Sea, who are lobbying for reparations-- they want us to pay for everything that got broken."

    "Ohhh..." Nyx said, crestfallen. She'd forgotten that the problem was in two parts.

    "One problem at a time, one problem at a time," Twilight muttered to herself. "I'm sure once we deal with the Council, everything will fall into place...." Still, she frowned into her juice glass.

    Celestia startled the table by letting loose with an enormous yawn. "Oh, forgive me," she said as the table erupted in juvenile giggles. "I guess I haven't gotten quite enough sleep."

    "How?" Gossamer said. "Doesn't the sun get up when you do?"

    "Ugh, don't start that again," Killdeer groaned.

    Celestia chuckled. "Were it only so. I and my sister have to keep to an exact schedule for every sunset and sunrise. I am awoken by an alarm clock, just like the rest of my little ponies, and then I must raise the sun." She sighed. "Just once I would like to be woken up by the sun on my face, just to feel what it's like."

    "It's too bad you can't just get the stupid clock to raise the sun for you," Nyx giggled.

    There was a clatter from the other end of the table. Everyone looked up; Twilight had dropped her fork on her plate and was staring into space, her eyes wide with astonishment. Nyx could almost see the lightbulb over her head. "Twilight? Darling? Are you all right?" Ink Spot said, alarmed.

    "That's it," Twilight said. "But what if-- no. That IS it. It's perfect. No, it's better than perfect!" She got up from the table. "But first we have to... and then.... oh, so much to do!"

    "Twilight?" Celestia said, a little worried. The last time Twilight had gotten that look in her eyes they'd had to re-shingle the roof on the School for Gifted Unicorns. Twilight was already on the move, though. Scrolls, pens and ink were spinning around her in a magical orbit. "Okay, I need to move this to the Starswirl wing of the royal library-- it's the only place with a copy of "Advanced Synchronostic Harmony", and they have that ginormous orrery there-- somepony, open up that magic mirror again and get Roller Reel; I need him to send us copies of that footage of Big Wheel's traffic flow studies and a couple of other films, too-- and send a summons for Time Turner--"

    "Time Turner? The Ponyville Clockmaker?" Ink Spot stammered.

    "Yes, he's the best in the business, and he's not stuck up his own plot like Professor TickTock-- Sorry Celestia, but I took his class at school and honestly...."

    "Twilight, what are you up to?" Celestia said.

    "Solving all the world's problems at once." She galloped off in a cloud of books and papers, came galloping back, and grabbed Ink Spot's ear in her teeth. "Come ON!"

    "Owowowow! I was going to follow you anyway--!" Twilight dragged off her protesting fiancee by the tip of his ear.

    1)The cloaks were going by the wayside as a wee bit too expensive, and a bit too girly for the colts, and were being replaced with armbands with the CMC badge. It was already just as notorious; Already in some neighborhoods shopkeeps paled and grannies clutched for their pacemakers whenever a red armband was sighted.

    2)Gossamer had literally dived into one tub and eaten her way to the surface. By the end of the party she was three kernels away from being a butter-marinated flutterpony.

    3)Promptly throwing Gossamer and Doubloon, who were seated on either side of her, into spastic hiccups.

    Chapter 21

    "Now I have to be absolutely, positively certain that you are one hundred percent willing to go along with this," Twilight said to Time Turner. "This project is top secret. Hush hush. Nopony outside must know about it before it is finished. The pay is going to be... phenomenal, but the work is going to be protracted, difficult, and dealing with the extremely arcane, which always has its risks. Are you CERTAIN?" She flared her wings and leaned forward, staring at him wide-eyed with their noses an inch apart.

    Time Turner gulped. "Well....I... y-yes," he said. "Derpy and I need the money to... well... make a start of things-- I'm just a little nervous. This is the first time I've ever done any work for Royalty."

    Twilight blew a raspberry. "Don't worry about that," she said. "Once we start on this, we're all going to be just fellow teammates before long, I assure you." She nodded to him and the other workers she'd selected. "And I'd like to keep it that way. I don't want you bowing and scraping and 'you're highness-ing' when you ought to be yelling 'run, it's gonna blow!' " This got nervous titters from the mares and stallions gathered.

    "I understand we're going to be sequestered?" Somepony said.

    "Yes." Twilight waved around her. "We'll all be working and bunking right here in the Starswirl the Bearded wing, and the neighboring staff wing. We'll try and make it as comfortable as possible. Mister Ink Spot--" here she directed their attention to her fiancee, who nodded his head in greeting-- "will be our, well, our outside liason. Everything in or out has to go through him, or me."

    "How long will we be sequestered?" Time Turner said, worried. "I thought it was only until the end of this week."

    Twilight bit her lip. "Yes," she said. "And no..."

    Even as Twilight raced about to create, design, and build a proof-of-concept that might very well change the world, the gears and levers of the Equestrian government, particularly the arcane workings of the Equestrian royal court, continued to turn. Schemes continued to unfold, plots continued to unwind, plans continued to mesh together, the driving cogs utterly oblivious to the vastness of greater events around them and, even were they to be made aware, utterly uncaring.

    It was the nature of the machinery of politics that there was really no coherent arrangement to the parts... and more than one set of gears and pulleys and levers was working at cross purposes with the others. For the most part, so long as the master watchsmith known as "Celestia" kept an eye on things, the whole mismatched clockwork continued to function, or at least not cause too much serious difficulty. But if one wasn't careful, some of these gnashing, clashing parts would break loose entirely of their moorings and go pinging about in the inner works, jamming things here and bending parts awry over there, causing rapidly escalating havoc.

    It is with that in mind that the narrative now moves to consider two such loose nuts rattling about in the halls of Canterlot Castle. The two were meeting in a little alcove, an area off the beaten path but not too far, where the guards or staff rarely patrolled, and they could be fairly sure they would not be overheard or spied upon by magical means. The castle was full of such little blind spots, or so the elder of the two claimed, and he had carefully mapped them out over years of experience. Again, as he so claimed.

    "Well, my boy, it's about time you returned," Duke Blueblood said to his wayward son. "The fortunes of the Unicorn tribe and of the Blueblood clan wait for no stallion."

    Prince Blueblood (1) regarded his father unamused. "Yet it apparently managed to wait until the exact moment I got back from my little yachting junket," he said drily. Immediately after that terrifying encounter with not one, but two enraged princesses, Prince Blueblood had wisely decided to recuperate his nerves by taking his personal zeppelin out on a little tour away from the capital. Way, way wayyyy away from the capital. A week or two out in the coastal sun had done marvels for his nerves.

    Unfortunately,he had been back home barely an hour and his dear pater was doing his darnedest to undo all that good work. "None of that backtalk," the Duke said. "You lounge about doing nothing but spend money while the legacy of the unicorn families withers away. Have you no ambition?"

    "No," Prince Blueblood said bluntly. "And if you had any sense neither would you."

    The elder unicorn turned red. "Why I never--"

    "You ought to, father. It's fun," the prince said, idly sniffing at a nearby flower in a vase. "Honestly father, think. We're a royal bloodline. We are landed gentry with noble titles, houses, mansions, and a royal stipend... we could bloody well spend the rest of our lives lounging about doing nothing but spend money and we'd never run out. In fact the commoners would be THANKFUL that we were spending our lives as idle wastrels, rather than haranguing the Crown with bills and decrees and proposals that were sure to upset them. Is putting our family or any unicorn family back on the throne going to make our pillows any fluffier or our wine any sweeter?"

    Duke Blueblood's face was a brilliant scarlet now. "You miserable popinjay," he said. "To think that you came from my loins--" he cut himself off. "Boy, you're going to start contributing something to this family's fortunes and ambitions besides your pretty face and your hair care bills," he hissed. "Or so help me I'll have your access to the family funds cut off so completely you won't have a credit rating fit to borrow a cup of sugar from the neighbor's scullery maid."

    Prince Blueblood gulped, but managed to (mostly) keep his cool expression. "I never said I wouldn't help," he said.

    "Good." Duke Blueblood scowled. "Our first effort to get this new princess under control was... less than satisfactory," he said. He grunted and shifted his stance a little; he was still suffering some pretty severe bruising. "Trying to subdue the uppity little mare by marrying her into a proper, disciplined unicorn family obviously wouldn't work anyway. So we're going to have to try a different approach to diminishing her power---"

    "Undermining her popular support," Prince Blueblood said in a monotone.

    "--Undermining her popular support," Duke Blueblood smirked. "You have been paying attention after all."

    "Hardly," the prince said. "You only have four strategies for dealing with ponies you don't like, Pater; Marry them into some strict family of martinets, ship them off to the boonies, bankrupt them or trash their reputations. All your clever plans are some combination or other of the four."

    "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Duke Blueblood said.

    His son said nothing but he thought plenty. He recalled the fate of one of his younger cousins, a vivacious young thing who had annoyed his father by getting "uppity."Duke Blueblood had made an example of her by talking her father into marrying her off to a brute of a stallion who was known among the gossips for his brutish behavior... drinking heavily and striking the maids so violently he left bruises.

    Of course that had backfired somewhat, when on their honeymoon the groom was eaten by a crocodile.It was a tragic event, a complete freak accident, everypony said;Blueblood personally always thought it was suspicious that Celestia's wedding gift had been a trip to Zebrabwe, complete with tickets for a cruise down the crocodile-infested Amarezon river. And Blueblood was fairly sure there wasn't actually any Zebra marriage tradition that called for the newlywed groom to sit in a chair hanging off the prow of the boat with a string of "lucky" fish in his lap... The young widow, by Celestia's decree, had ended up inheriting every last dime of her late husband's estate as well as his royal stipend (an even bigger blow to the Blueblood estate), and was now merrily spending it all on touring the world and writing a wildly popular series of travelogues of her adventures.

    Then there was the time he had tried to ruin a mare's reputation with a whisper campaign of scandalous rumors. A Sapphire something-or-other... Dear Pater had apparently never heard the saying "there's no such thing as bad press." The mare in question had diverted the budding scandal into Equestria-wide notoriety, and had ridden her own coattails into a pop music career that literally thrived on her own outrageousness.

    Then there were the soldiers he'd tried to have exiled to some Maker-forsaken post in the frozen North-- who had somehow ended up being diverted to a post several hundred miles eastward, in the dazzling verdant oasis of the Crystal Empire. Or the servants he'd swore would never work in Canterlot ever again. He was true to his word; they never had. They were too busy spending their sweepstakes winnings.

    Quite a lot of Duke Blueblood's machinations had ended up the same way; his would-be target booted upstairs, diverted to plush positions elsewhere, sentences commuted, "punishments" dealt out that the victims would have begged for under other circ*mstances... little slips, little errors in paperwork, a sly word here and there from the crown and while father had his "revenge" his innocent victims somehow resurfaced elsewhere, untouched. And there at the end of it all would be the Princess, sitting there with that ineffable smile....

    But then again, quite a lot of them had not.

    Prince Blueblood was a ponce, a sissy, a twit and a coward, but he was not, in fact or theory, a moron. Half the reason for his falling out with his own father had been because by the mere age of twelve It had been obvious to him that his father's circle of conspirators were light years out of their league. They imagined themselves chessmasters, when in fact they were going up against a true grand master with nothing under their belts but a school yard championship in tiddlywinks.

    Then he recalled his father's most recent misadventure and shuddered. When the throne room had exploded in cosmic flame... There, he thought, was proof positive that with Celestia one could in fact go just one hoofstep too far.It had been like discovering in mid-move that your chess rival had suddenly decided to take up kickboxing.

    "Will you pay attention?" Duke Blueblood snapped. The prince snapped out of his reverie.

    "What?

    "You were standing there staring into space for five minutes," Duke Blueblood said. "Honestly, is your skull full of nothing but hairspray and gin?"

    Prince Blueblood sniffed, wounded. "Well, what were you saying?"

    "I was saying," the Duke said with the feigned patience of one dealing with the mentally dim, "that we are going to have to use a more... dispersed tactic to bring Princess Twilight to heel."

    "You mean we'll have to make scattered attacks against her through intermediaries, so Princess Celestia and Princess Luna don't find out who's responsible."

    Duke Blueblood harrumphed but didn't deny it. "We have been given a rare windfall opportunity," he said. He produced an envelope from inside his expensive suit coat and passed it over to Prince Blueblood. The prince opened it and found a stack of cheap instant photographs inside; he began leafing through them with a raised eyebrow. "Twilight Sparkle has been running amuck in the royal library," Duke Blueblood said. "She's all but barricaded herself in the Starswirl the Bearded wing and is working nonstop on some project-- something apparently to do with the hearings before this Court of Cosmic Whatevers. In all the mess she's making, she dropped these photos on a stack of paperwork and forgot them."

    "And what am I to do with them?" Prince Blueblood asked in bemusem*nt.

    "Take a look at them, boy. You can see that some of those photos could be, shall we say, interpreted badly if you gave them the right spin..." the Duke smirked. "Which is just what we want. You're going to get in contact with your riff-raffish friends in the tabloid press, and you're going to convince them to gin up a story with them. I wrote a few suggestions for your pet ink-noses to get them started."

    Blueblood regarded the pictures skeptically. He could see the "suggestions" written in the margins. "Noone's going to buy this, Father dear," he said. "Not even the Barnyard Bargains shopper trash is dullwitted enough to believe these sorts of stories."

    "It doesn't matter," the Duke said. "The idea is to pepper the target with hundreds of accusations... too many for anypony to sit down and sort through. Repeat an idea often enough, and it gains a momentum all its own. Right now the great unwashed are thrilled by her novelty and think that she's "one of them" because she came from nothing, hangs about with peasants, and is marrying below her newly lofted station. Eventually the sheer number of 'questions' will have ponies muttering about her, and popular opinion will begin to turn against her. At the very least they'll have her a frazzled wreck."

    "Not hard to do," Prince Blueblood muttered, recalling stories of some of the more epic freakouts by Celestia's favorite student. And therefore not a bad strategy, he had to admit. He remembered to sniff in scorn. "But what in Equestria makes you think I can make the tabloid trash jump to my tune?"

    Duke Blueblood smiled coldly at his son. "Don't pee on my leg and try to tell me it's raining, boy," he said. "You've been priming the gossip columns and tabloids for years with stories about yourself. You figure that as long as you look like a ponce and a twit, nopony will saddle you with any responsibility or expect you to do anything."

    Prince Blueblood gulped. He was caught out.

    It was true. Prince Blueblood had always been... deliberately careless about the image he cultivated. He routinely offended ponies, deliberately alienating the powerful and influential, cozying up to other royal layabouts, doing his best to get his face on the front page as an irresponsible partying playboy...

    Then, at the Grand Galloping Gala two or three yeas ago, it had turned around and bit him. Prince Blueblood had been latched onto by an obvious ladder-climber.(2) He had amused himself by behaving like an absolute lout and embarrassing her the whole evening, only to have the tables turned on him at the end when she proceeded to verbally lash him to bits in front of the Canterlot elite then splatter him with cake like a circus clown. He had burned with a need for revenge against the gold-digging little chit... until Princess Celestia herself had taken him aside and informed him that he had grievously offended the Bearer of the Element of Generosity, one of the greatest national heroes of Equestria and a favorite of the Crown, and that she was terribly upset and disappointed with him.

    He had very nearly soiled himself. There was low caste, middle caste, and high caste-- and then there were ponies who were above and beyond any caste system at all, who were in a category all their own that made them literally untouchable. The Element Bearers were on that level. They were from low or middling backgrounds, had no wealth, were of no social influence by birth and were intimately connected with arcane forces the Princesses themselves could not touch. In a way, Twilight Sparkle had actually taken a step down on the social ladder by becoming a Princess. Mucking about with the Element Bearers through social warfare was like banging on a stack of land mines with a stick, and Prince Blueblood, already on the outs because of his own deliberate antics, had spent the entire evening playing a drum solo on them.

    No, Prince Blueblood had burned all his bridges ages ago. He was on the outs with Celestia, with the Elements of Harmony, and with everypony and anypony who was at all connected with them. His best hope for this latest scheme of his father's was to quietly follow through, get clear, and hope that when the horseapples hit the windmill he would be left in a relatively splatter-free zone.

    "Oh don't choke on your tie, boy. Go ahead and play the useless ninny, for all I care. Just don't expect me to go along with it. You're going to make your underestimated little self useful to me from now on."

    Prince Blueblood cleared his throat. "Will there be anything else?" He said faintly.

    "No, for now. Gassing up the tabloids is your only job for now," the Duke said. "If you can think of any other juicy rumors about Twilight Sparkle or her cronies, you have permission to use them."

    You have permission, Prince Blueblood thought dismally. It was obvious who was on which end of the leash in this family.

    "I have some other angles I'll be working with my own contacts in the respectable branches of the media," the Duke went on, making sure to slather the disdain on the sentence. "A few weeks of having her friends and family used as a punching bag by the press, she'll be more willing to cooperate. The more she cooperates, the more we ease up on her. She'll toe the line, soon enough." The Duke looked at his pocket watch. "I expect to see tabloid headlines by tomorrow, boy. Don't disappoint me." With that, he turned and trotted off down the abandoned hallway.

    Blueblood groaned silently to himself in disgust and stuck the envelope in his jacket pocket. So this was what it meant to be in the big leagues, he thought. To go from being a fop with a martinet for a father figure, to being a flunky for a cut rate movie serial villain. He could at least hope that when it did all hit the fan, it wouldn't be spread with perfect uniformity.

    1)There was an incredibly long and tedious explanation as to why the son of a Duke should be called a Prince, but even contemplating it always gave Prince Blueblood a headache. Quite frankly all that mattered to him was that at a fairly young age he had managed to locate the wordy precedent in some book of heraldry and convince his "Auntie" Celestia to implement it. Prior to that, it had been his fate to be referred to as a "Dauphin..." which had proven extremely unfortunate when he entered elementary school, as the wittier students had taken to making squeaking noises and throwing goldfish crackers at him when the teacher wasn't looking.

    2)Obvious because unlike any female in his actual social circle, she had been eager to be around him.

    Chapter 22

    The first of many innumerable meetings with the leaders of the Western nations was the next day. For all the pomp and ceremony everyone attempted to muster, it was something of an assembly line event-- the emissaries of the various nations would, one by one, troop forward to present their grievance, their petition for compensation from Equestria for damages, and then enumerate--- often extensively--- the damages incurred and the amount necessary to repay. Luna found herself reduced to repeating the rote response over and over again: "The nation of Equestria extends its sympathy to your people, and shall look into the matter forthwith." At which point the petition would be put in a dossier and handed off to a courier, who would run it off to yet another group of harried office workers who would, presumably, begin investigating the matter and trying to figure out just how much Equestria owed, and hopefully what compensation could be offered.

    This left Luna a great deal of time to contemplate just how much, in cold hard bits, Equestria was left owing. Some few thousand years of stashing bits away for a rainy day (1) had left Celestia and Luna pretty flush. It would utterly demoralize some ponies if they ever found out how often the Princesses had patched up rough spots in the national finances by dipping into the Princess' personal piggy bank. Still, A few centuries of wise, stable fiscal policy(2) had resulted in a thriving nation with a robust economy.

    One that would be stripped to the walls if they tried to honor even a fraction of these alleged debts. There were dozens of nations great and small with a bone to pick here. No one nation, no matter how wealthy and powerful, could possibly pay reparations to dozens of others.

    Luna sighed and rubbed her head. It wasn't readily visible but she had a pretty sizeable bump on her head, just below her horn. The gryphon cub had been right about that hazard on the fourth turn...

    It was a momentary lull; she had dismissed the court for an hour so that everyone present could at least get some lunch and a break from the stifling monotony.She was brooding over her lunch of cucumber sandwiches when there was a frantic hammering at the vaulted double doors to the throne room. "Who seeks entry?" she demanded, annoyed. Third darn time something had interrupted her lunch---

    The doors burst open and in came the son of the Gryphon Emperor, Killdeer-Adder. He ran straight up the red carpet at the throne, his face a mask of terror. The guards stepped in to block his path, spears crossed, but this was a royal gryphon, and even a gangly adolescent outmassed a full grown stallion. He bowled them right over without even pausing.

    "Sanctuary, Sanctuary!" he squawked, and dove under the Equestrian throne. This was not exactly an appropriate fit, as there was less than a foot of space underneath. Luna found herself seated upon a throne that was now teetering atop an adolescent gryphon's back. "What is the meaning of this??" she yelped, scuffling to keep her balance.

    A serpent's head rose from under the throne. It had the most extraordinary expression of distress on its face. "Your Highness, I know that he seems to be in histrionics," Adder said rapidly, "but allow me to assure you that we are in most desperate need of sanctuary."

    "From whom?" Luna asked, flummoxed.

    "From our family!" Killdeer bawled.

    Wordlessly, Adder retreated below the throne and reappeared clutching a newspaper in his mouth. Luna recognized it as one of the lurid "tabloids" that flooded the market these days. She took it in her magical grasp and unfolded it. What she saw on the front page made her jaw drop in disbelief.

    The guards around the room saw her reaction and braced themselves for the Canterlot Royal Voice to be raised in upset. But what happened next made them seriously begin to sweat: the Princess of the Night turned to her two majordomos, spoke in a quiet, controlled voice and said;

    "Circ*mstance, attend me. Pomp, go hither and fetch my sister..." she looked down at the page and rethought. "And Twilight... and Nyx.... and....everypony else. This is going to be...awkward."

    Nyx knew something was up the moment the chariot touched down at the school. Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon were already there, way before anyone else-- and she and Spike had left extra early that morning. They were loitering out on the front stoop, in the conspicuous manner that only spoiled little prima donnas manage to pull off. They were holding a copy of the foal free press between them and snickering to each other in the most attention getting manner they could pull off.

    Spike glared at them and snorted. "Oh boy, the Prissy Pair are at it again," he said, putting his hands on his hips. "This oughta be good..."

    With an odd mix of curiosity and dread, Nyx waved goodbye to Sundiver and Lightning Blitz and trotted over to the schoolhouse with Spike. Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara shot a look at her over their newspaper and exploded into giggles. "Oh, look who's here," Diamond Tiara drawled. "Her Royal Highness has deigned to join us." The two snigg*red and made a big show of bowing to her.

    Nyx scowled. "What are you doing?" Nyx said, starting to pout a little at the unwanted theatrics.

    "Oh your Highness," Diamond Tiara said, waving a hoof. "We just wanted to congratulate you on getting on the front cover of the newspaper again. Seeing how you like doing that and rubbing ponies' noses in it." Her last words had a touch of acid in them; the incident with the Trans-Equestria Chronicle still made her seethe.

    "What are you talking about?" Nyx demanded, scowling more.

    Diamond Tiara held the paper up under Nyx's nose with a flourish.

    Silver Spoon looked up from her bow. "Boy," she leered, "Are you gonna get it."

    Nyx's jaw dropped.


    ROYAL BRAT:

    Daughter of new Princess Goes on Debauched Party Binge

    Royal quarters trashed, castle staff in tears

    Right below was a blown up, full color picture of Nyx, Spike and the Royal Children, caught in what looked like the middle of a massive popcorn fight. Popcorn, cups and bowls were flying everywhere;It really did look like they were taking the place apart at the seams.There was tons of writing below and all sorts of thing in bold font and exclamation points, but she didn't read them. She scanned down the pictures; all of them showed her and the partygoers, catching them in ridiculous poses, looking like they were doing something crazy or stupid or naughty....

    "That's not what happened!" Nyx protested, but even as she said it she knew it was hopeless. There the proof was, in print and living color. She pranced in a circle in panic. A newspaper scandal. Celestia and Luna were going to be furious. Mom was going to freak!

    Spike reached past her and snatched the paper out of the air. His eyebrows climbed up his scaly head as he read. "..hedonism...imbibing.... depravity.... pubescent debauchery.... the hay?"

    "I didn't do any of that!" Nyx cried, doing a frantic hoofy dance. "I don't even know what those words mean!" She cast about frantically. She had arrived at school early; only Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara were there sooner. She could see the rest of the class coming up the road though. Several of them were clustered together around a newspaper--- Applebloom, Sweetiebelle, Scootaloo, Twist, oh no, no no no, Rumble.

    They looked up and saw her. "Nyx!" Scootaloo called out. They broke into a gallop, running straight for her.

    Nyx just couldn't face them. She couldn't. She turned and bolted, Diamond Tiara's cackling laughter ringing in her ears.

    Earth pony stamina stood her in good stead; she tore round a couple of corners at breakneck speed and would have lost them if she hadn't turned down a dead-end alley by mistake. She saw the wooden fence at the other end and remembered, at the last moment, that she had wings. She took to the air and flapped for all she was worth, already six feet in the air by the time she reached the end of the alley.

    Unfortunately the fence was eight feet high.

    She hit the fence with a resounding THWACK, flattening full length against the boards. She stuck there for a moment, then fell away, landing hard on the ground below. She started to groan an climb back to her hooves, but she was suddenly tackled by three shouting fillies. Applebloom, Scootaloo and Sweetiebelle dogpiled her, flattening her to the ground again.

    "WE DIDN'T DO IT!" they yelled in unison.

    "Argh," Nyx said, humiliation turning to bafflement "Didn't do what??"

    No answer was forthcoming. At that moment two pegasus colts, Featherweight and Rumble, came fluttering down from the sky. Spike was hanging between them, dangling by his claws from their hooves. "Thanks for the lift, guys," he said.

    "No problem," Featherweight said. "I just had to know what all the running and yelling was about."

    "Call it a hunch but it probably has something to do with the front page of the paper," Spike said, furrowing his brow at Featherweight. "You wouldn't have anything to tell us all, would ya?"

    "Aw hey, c'mon--" Featherweight protested.

    "What is everypony talking about?" Nyx said.

    "I thought it was all about this," Rumble said, holding up his copy of the paper.

    Nyx looked at Rumble, face flaming. "T-Those things in the paper, it wasn't like that--!"

    Applebloom waved her hooves. "Wait, wait, wait," she said. We can explain all this..."

    "You sure as shootin' will, missy," Somepony said. Everyone turned and looked; Applejack, Rarity and Rainbow Dash were all standing at the mouth of the alley, accompanied by Nyx's guards. Nyx gulped; Sundiver and Lightning Blitz were looking all professional and impassive. But the three Bearers were looking-- Nyx had read the phrase in a book once and hadn't gotten quite what it meant till now-- bloody furious.

    Rarity huffed and glared at Sweetiebelle. "And after all this time, I thought you learned your lesson, Sweetiebelle," she said. "Well, we're all going right to the castle to straighten this out!" She turned to the guards. "I trust there's enough room on the chariot for all of us, sirs?"

    "Yeah, you're coming with me too, squirt," Rainbow Dash scowled at Scootaloo. "Your folks can't deal with this right now. You three are in big trouble."

    "And that goes double for you, Applebloom," Applejack said.

    Applebloom started to splutter. "But we--"

    "--DIDN'T DO ANYTHING!!" Applebloom hollered.

    Not that anyone in the royal suite was listening. It had gotten decidedly crowded in Twilight's library tower. Twilight and Ink Spot had gathered everyone most involved in the "scandal" to try and wrangle things out. Nyx, Spike and Bright Eyes were there, along with the Cutie Mark Crusaders (original edition) and all the Royal Brats, as the group had come to be unofficially known. The Element Bearers were there as well, largely in the form of two angry older sisters and one angry sibling stand in. In the rush to get everypony back to the castle Rumble and Featherweight had been swept up in the tumult and dragged along as well. Everypony was clumping up in groups trying to figure out exactly what had happened, and everypony was talking at once.

    Killdeer-Adder was over in a corner trying to convince himself that he could emigrate to Equestria. "I could learn to be a pony," Killdeer insisted. "It'd be better than facing Pop and Grandpop after this."

    "Worth spending our life eating hay?" Adder asked.

    "I could learn," Killdeer said meekly.

    Songhili was sitting over in a corner, looking quiet and troubled.. Po the ki-rin was sitting beside him, bemused. He was far out of his depth and suspected that the selkie was feeling the same. They spoke together in quiet murmurs. Doubloon was looking fretful. Her parents were middle-of-the-pond nobility and diplomats, with far less clout than the others; a scandal could hurt them far worse than the others. Gossamer on the other hand was having a ball. She was flipping through her own copy of the paper and shrieking in laughter. Flutterponies, to judge by her reactions, didn't give two toots about "big pony" politics.

    The adults in the room were looking either distressed, angry, confused or a mix of all three. There were some raised voices, but Twilight begged them to wait until Celestia got there to sort things out.

    The Ponyville foals were all gathered on one of the sofas. They were doing their best to untangle what had happened, and sad to say were making far more headway than the grownups. "We didn't write the stories," Sweetiebelle was saying. "We didn't have anything to do with it, we swear!" She pulled the rolled-up paper out of her saddlebag and held it up. "It wasn't us this time!" she held up the paper.

    "This time?" Nyx asked, squinting.

    "Wait, wait, wait," Applebloom said. She facehoofed. "Girls, she don't know about Gabby Gums."

    "Gabby Gums???" Nyx repeated. This was getting more confusing as it went.

    Scootaloo and Sweetiebelle sat back."It happened before you, um, well before you," Scootaloo said. "We got roped into reporting stories---"

    "Blackmailed, actually," Applebloom deadpanned.

    "---for the Foal Free Press."Scootaloo grimaced. "We called ourselves 'Gabby Gums.' Diamond Tiara kept pushing us to make up stories about ponies... everypony loved them."

    "Except for the ponies they were about." Sweetiebelle clarified. "We ended up having to apologize to the whole town. It was awful." She pressed her hooves to her mouth.

    "Even th' Foal Free Press is runnin' the story," Applebloom said. "We were scared the minute you saw it, you'd think we were the ones who did it."

    "A lotta colts and fillies have already started asking if Gabby Gums made a comeback," Scootaloo growled.

    "When you saw us and ran off, we thought you thought it was us, too," Sweetiebelle said, hurt in her eyes.

    Nyx blushed and hunched her head down between her shoulders. "When I saw you with the paper, I thought that you thought the story was true," she said in a small voice.

    "Aw c'mon, of course not!" Scootaloo said. "We were at the party, remember?" She noogied Nyx with a free hoof. "Geez, ker-duh."

    "And even if we weren't, we still wouldn't believe it," Applebloom said stoutly. "It's the most ridiculous buncha horsefeathers we ever done seen."

    "Abtholutely," Twist said.

    Nyx sighed in relief and gave them all a hug. "You guys are the best," she said. "Thank you."

    They held that tableau for just a moment.Fortunately before the teasing could rev up, Twilight decided to get things organized.

    "Could I have everypony's attention please?" she called out over the din. The crowd quieted. " I know everypony is upset right now, but we will sort this out. As soon as Princess Celestia arrives we..."

    "No need to delay on my behalf, Twilight dear." Princess Celestia and Luna strode into the room. Every being present quickly bowed, but Celestia waved them off. "Enough of that, my little ponies... and others," she said. "This is a bit less formal occasion, I think."

    "Certes, sister," Luna. "What a hugger-mugger mess."

    "I've had to deal with gossips and muckrakers for many centuries. This is nothing new to me. But...do continue, Twilight," Celestia urged. She and Luna took seats on hastily-summoned lounging cushions, observing.

    Twilight nodded, and took a deep breath. "Okay, It looks like somepony-- or ponies-- has set out to stir up a gossip scandal on the Royal... er... children," she said. "It's patently ridiculous, of course-- The slumber party here and in Ponyville was supervised the entire time-- "

    "Durn tootin'!" Pinkie Pie said.

    "So we have to get some answers to some questions." She held up (naturally) a written checklist, hovering it in front of her as she read aloud. "One: where those pictures came from. Two: who gave them to the newspapers. Three: why. And four.... um... how to straighten this out."

    "So first question first: where those pictures came from..."

    "Ah'm suspecting certain someponies got ahold of the pictures and decided to make hay with 'em." Applejack shot a withering look at her younger sister. She got a blistering glare of defiance in return.

    "Ah tole you we didn't DO anything!" the younger Apple shouted back.

    "Well we're hardly to be blamed if you're the first suspects," Rarity said loftily. "Considering you girls' past record... you were at the party, you had the opportunity...."

    "Past record?" Celestia said. "Care to explain?" Something in her eye hinted to Nyx that she already knew, somehow.

    "The... Gabby Gums incident," Twilight said. "You remember the Friendship report... these three started writing a gossip column and--"

    Celestia gave a silent 'ah' and nodded. "Yes, I do remember," she said. Her expression turned wry. "I also remember your less than mature handling of the situation."

    Twilight stuttered. "I.. bwa?"

    "Oh, I'm including the rest of you as well," Celestia said casually, glancing first at Rainbow Dash, then at Applejack and finally resting her eyes on Rarity. "Really girls-- hiding behind a force field? Giving them the silent treatment? Dumping rain on them?" The guilty parties lowered their hat brims, scrunched their noses, or hunched their shoulders as was their wont. Celestia sighed. "It's only pony nature, I suppose, to be a bit hypocritical about the issue of gossip--"

    "Hypocritical??" Rarity blurted out. "Those three published humiliating, distorted rumors about us in that newspaper!"

    Celestia gave her a knowing Mona Lisa-esque smile. "And were they buying all those papers themselves, hmmmm?" she asked. "From what I understand, all of you were buying up that paper just for that column. You couldn't get enough of it--you lapped it up eagerly. And I would wager a considerable sum you were the worst of the lot, Rarity."

    Rarity flushed and cleared her throat. "And... you know that because?"

    "Because Twilight's not the only one around here who writes to the Princess regularly," Spike snorted, buffing his claws on his chest and examining them. Rarity turned redder and shot him a glare that promised many cold shoulders in the future.

    "These three fillies did something wrong, writing gossip about ponies in the paper," Celestia continued. "But they were only writing exactly what all the adults in Ponyville, yourselves included, wanted from them. You punished them for being gossips, when it was you that PAID them to do just that." The adults in question winced as the truth struck home. "It's foolish to spend all your anger on ponies who rake up gossip, without holding accountable those who are in the market for it."

    "It wathnt really their fault anyway," Twist said. "They were being forthed to write Gabby Gums."

    "How?" Nyx queried. "Miss Cheerilee would never do that!"

    The trio turned red. "It wasn't Miss Cheerilee. Y'see, there were, um, pictures of us..." Scootaloo began. "If we didn't come up with a column for Gabby Gums... then those pictures were gonna end up in the Foal Free Press instead."

    "Ironyyyyy," Spike intoned.

    "You were being blackmailed?" Twilight Sparkle exclaimed.

    "Who was blackmailing-- oh wait, let me guess," Nyx said, disgusted.

    Every Ponyville native in the room said it at the same time. "Diamond Tiara."

    Twilight pressed a hoof to her forehead. "What the buck is wrong with Ponyville, I swear..."

    "We're sorry about that," Applebloom said suddenly. She blushed as she realized she'd interrupted royalty. "A-about the picture of you in the paper, I mean. Yer Highness." This to Celestia.

    Luna snorted and chuckled. "Oh, alas, the populace hath learned their Sun Princess doth eat cake like a hog," she said, sticking her tongue out in her sister's direction. "What deep hideous secrets of state shall be revealed next?"

    Celestia gave Luna a look that was half amused, half annoyed. "I may eat like a hog but at least I don't snore like one," she said.

    Luna gawped. "Tis a lie!"

    "I have witnesses," Celestia said. "And audio recordings."

    Luna scrunched her nose. "touche', " she said.

    Celestia smiled. "Now where was--"

    "---Cake Butt."

    Celestia harrumphed while the foals giggled. More than one grownup present had to smother a snicker or two as well. "As I was saying," she enunciated carefully. "I'm sure these three learned their lesson."

    "Yeah," Scootaloo snarked. "Don't leave anything in writing."

    "Not quite the lesson I was shooting for, my little filly," Celestia said. It was hard to tell whether she was aggrieved or amused.

    "It's okay your Highness, we did learn our lesson," Sweetiebelle said meekly. "Don't write gossip about other ponies..."

    "Well at least they learned that much," Rarity said.

    Sweetiebelle glowered at her. "... go out and gossip in person like my sister does, instead," she finished sarcastically.

    "I do not--! I... do not gossip that much," Rarity said weakly.

    "Um..." Fluttershy said faintly. She looked all kinds of guilty for saying. "I'm afraid you do, Rarity..."

    "They got ya there, Rares," Applejack said. "Those three coulda left a tape recorder under your chair at the spa and had enough Gabby Gums stories for the next twenty years."

    Rarity said nothing; she stood there with her muzzle scrunched up, doing her best impersonation of a tomato. She finally let out a puff of air in defeat. " Oh very well," she muttered. She went over to where her sister sat. "I'm sorry, Sweetiebelle," she said humbly. "Before I got all righteously indignant at you, maybe I should have checked my own self over first. Do you forgive me?" Sweetiebelle nodded happily and gave Rarity a quick hug.

    "That goes for me too, little sis," Applejack said, mussing Applebloom's mane.

    "Yyyeah. I... guess I kind of overreacted, Squirt." Rainbow Dash said, rubbing the back of one leg with the hoof of the other. "We good?"

    Scootaloo grinned. "We're good, Rainbow Dash. And we promise, we never wrote another story for Gabby Gums."

    "Ponies, we're getting off-track," Twilight Sparkle said.

    Sea Foam tottered forward, guilt and shame on her face. "They were mine," she blurted out. "It had to have been me. Don't you remember, your Highness? I was taking pictures all night with my little instant camera." Tears started welling up in her eyes and she pressed her hoof to her mouth. "I had no idea anypony would--"

    "You didn't give them to the papers, did you?"

    "No, of course not!" Sea Foam waved away the very idea, shaking her head in vehemence. "I was taking them for the Princess' scrapbook. " she shook her head.

    Twilight shook her head. "No, wait, I remember: I... I left them piled up on my desk. I remember, I couldn't find a bunch of them after I threw away a bunch of papers-- I must have dropped them in the trash by mistake...' she facehoofed. "The trash pony hauls our stuff straight to the incinerator, but any passing pony could have seen those pictures on the trash basket, or piled up in the furnace room..."

    "But these," Sea Foam, pointed at the newspaper, now lying on the floor. "None of these look like pictures I took--"

    There was a loud snort from the Ponyville foal's corner of the room. "Nopony took these pictures," said a voice from behind yet another newspaper.

    "Beg pardon, young colt?" Ink Spot said.

    The paper folded down, revealing Featherweight. "They're fakes. Someone retouched them all. Some of 'em are even magically spliced together from other pictures." He held up the paper and pointed with a hoof. "See? you can see the edge marks here and here, and the shadows don't look right here, either... they're faked. Or just cropped to make things look worse than they are," Featherweight amended. "It's easy to do." He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "I.. ah... figured that out pretty quick when I started doing photography."

    Ink Spot took the paper and looked closer. "Ohhh yes, this looks like some of Flash Photo's work," he said.

    "Flash who?" Twilight said, sidling over to look.

    "Flash Photo. He doesn't do much camera work himself, but he's a whiz at retouching photos-- taking out pimples and blemishes, removing ponies from background scenes or adding them, removing obstructions from the foreground, that sort of thing. That tiny little pixy," he pointed to a miniscule winged silhouette half-hidden in a sunbeam sparkle, "that's sort of his trademark. He has his own shop where he takes in tons of retouch work. The publishing company I work for hires him sometimes."

    "You're certain it's him?" Twilight asked.

    Ink Spot nodded confidently. "These look like they've been to Photo's shop," he said. "I can tell by the pixies, and from seeing quite a few things from his shop in my time."(3) He looked over at Nyx. "Relax, kid, you're in the clear. The pics are all fake." Nyx sighed silently in relief. Even with everything that had been said, it was a relief to hear it.

    "Except forone or two. Like this one," Featherweight said. His hoof one particular picture. The most mortifying one. It was of her sleeping side by side with Songhili, the selkie pup. She was draped all over the selkie pup like a creeper vine around a tree trunk, her nose buried in his neck, drooling. It looked like they'd been caught snogging. And he was winking at the camera.

    "Um," Rumble said awkwardly, "Is this guy....?"

    Nyx squawked and proceeded to try and bury herself in the sofa cushions.

    "I'm pretty sure that the lipstick stain is fake, though," Featherweight amended, distracted.

    "I don't even wear lipstick!" Nyx's muffled scream came from under the cushions.

    "Oh well, there you go..."

    Rumble cleared his throat anxiously. "Um... so does that mean there's nothing between you and...?" he jerked his head in the direction of Songhili.

    Nyx 's head popped out from the cushions. She faced him, her face flaming. "What? NO! It was--- we were just sleeping! It was a sleepover! That's all... and..."

    "And she's a gropey hugger when she's asleep," Spike chipped in.

    Nyx blushed even harder. "SPIKE!" she hissed.

    "Oh, well... um... good." Rumble shuffled his hooves.

    Sweetiebelle let out a little squeal. "Oooo, is Rumble jealous?" Now it was Rumble's turn to blush.

    Songhili waddled over and addressed the pile of cushions. All that could be seen of Nyx was her tail. "I am terribly sorry for your embarrassment, Princess Nyx," he said, sincerely abashed. "I should probably not have mugged for the camera like that. Even if you are cuddly while you sleep."

    "Argh," said the sofa cushions.

    "Shyeah, she's not the only one with a bad camera moment," Killdeer said dismally. He poked at a picture in the paper he was holding; it showed him unconscious, his rump up on the couch with a stack of cups balanced on his tail, his face on the floor in a spilled bowl of popcorn. The photograph made him look like he was smashed out of his mind.

    "No, that's just you sleeping," Doubloon giggled. "I remember; you dozed off and fell off the couch. Gossamer and I had a contest stacking things on top of you."

    Gossamer pouted. "Yeah, Cherry Blossom stopped us before we could get to the makeup."

    "And that big photo up top, that's when Adder scared the horseshoes off Nyx... well, with a lot of editing added," Sweetiebelle said.

    For a few minutes everypony got lost in figuring out where the heavily doctored images had originally come from. Twilight finally got impatient. "Ponies, ponies," she said, tapping her hooves. "Focus. The next step is to find out who hired this Flash Photo to 'shop' these pictures..."

    "We shall launch an inquisition immediately," Luna said, stamping her hoof firmly. "And imprison those responsible!"

    "And lend credibility to the gossip?" Celestia said. "Besides, they were careful, Luna. Citing 'anonymous sources,' saying the photos were 'artist's renditions,' covering their sneaky little plots with weasel words and legalese." She wrinkled her nose. "The price of having a free press is like the price of having a puppy in the house-- sometimes it will decide to widdle on your bedroom slippers when you aren't expecting it." The foals giggled again.

    "We can inquire, discreetly, at Flash Photo's place of business," Celestia sighed. "Though I suspect our perpetrator had several middle-ponies to handle the transaction. But already I can guess who was responsible."

    "Who?" Twilight said.

    "The Bluebloods," Celestia said grimly. She then said a most unPrincessly swear word.

    There was a sharp intake of breath all over the room. "Princess Ce-LES-tia!" Nyx gasped.

    Celestia's cheek didn't even turn pink. "Forgive me, my little ponies," she said. "But Duke Blueblood has been a thorn in my side for decades. He is conceited, bigoted, petty and cruel, and constantly, constantly plotting and conniving." She got up and started pacing, her tail switching angrily. "I find myself dedicating half my courtly plans to out-maneuvering him, to spare some poor innocent from his petty vengeances.... your 'betrothal' to his lout of a son being just one example," she said in an aside to Twilight. "Nine times out of ten I manage to thwart him, but that tenth time..."

    "The worst part of it all is that I suspect his petty outrages are all a cat's paw," she went on. "I have reason to believe he is aligned with certain unicorn families who wish to see the Canterlot throne returned to unicorn control. He is the most obvious about this sentiment, but he associates with other, far more cunning nobles who could be using his shenanigans as a smoke screen, to conceal their more subtle plans."

    "Plans," Songhili slowly, "such as sending unofficial diplomats to the Kingdoms of the Western Sea, to plant the idea of reparations in their ears?"

    Every eye and ear was suddenly riveted on the pudgy little selkie. "Of course," Luna said. Then she let out a swear word herself. "That cunning viper..."

    "Do you have proof of this?" Celestia demanded. "Did you see ponies consulting with the king of the Selkies?"

    Songhili demurred. "Not... as such," he said. "But some few months after the calamities, I noticed an increase in trade ships from the kingdom of Equestria. In particular from the Compass Rose company..."

    "Which Blueblood doth own and control," Luna noted dourly.

    "And shortly thereafter, murmuring in the street began to rise. First about ponies exploiting our distressed situation, then about ponies being responsible for them... and from there to petitions to the King, demanding we seek restitution from the Princesses of the Sun and Moon for our difficulties." He shrugged. "Silliness. Our island was little more than mud and grass huts, made for the convenience of dealing with those who must always dwell on land. But convince a selkie that a debt is owed him..."

    Doubloon, who was lounging at the edge of the bathing pool, squeaked and slapped the water with her tail in startlement. "I remember something like that, too," she said. "We get almost no trade with Equestria, the next thing my father knows is a couple of pony cargo ships are in our waters asking for trade visas... and soon, seaponies are grumbling..."

    "Hey yeah, there were a few more airships passing through afterward, now that I think about it," Killdeer said, snapping his claws. "Lotta different companies, but a couple were from Compass Rose. I oughta know--- I was skysurfing and did a gnarly wipeout on one." He mimed splatting himself out against the side of a sky freighter. "Next thing I know, Pop and Grandpop are grumbling about 'getting their own back from the ponies.' I figured it was just them getting griped because ponies were exploiting our troubles to rake in some bits. Uh, no offense," he added.

    Applejack scowled. "You mean to tell me that this whole rumbunctiousness with the reparations and the diplomats and this Celestial Council what for are because some low down conniver went out to the Western Sea and beat every hornet's nest he could find with a stick?"

    Luna nodded. "Once enough kingdoms were stirred into unrest, the Celestial Council would have taken note, and been even more motivated to assemble."

    To everyone's surprise Po spoke up. "Forgive me for speaking out of turn," he said, "But could this not be opportunism and coincidence, rather than conspiracy? As Master Zeng He taught me, 'Would you expect a merchant to travel a thousand miles to sell his goods for the same price as home?' And the people always grumble when prices rise-- even when there is just cause for it."

    "Truth," Celestia said simply. "And that would be part of the plan to cover their tracks. After all, it's only sensible business-- and ponitarian aid-- for the Bluebloods and their friends to send out extra trade vessels when disasters strike." Celestia ground her teeth.

    "It's as plain as the nose on your face what has happened... but proving it is a tangled mess we may never unsnarl, and would be too ruinous and consuming an effort to even try now. We simply have no solid proof that the Bluebloods or their associates are conspiring against the throne."

    Beneath a pile of sofa cushions, a pair of slit-pupiled, turquoise eyes narrowed dangerously.

    Yet, Nyx thought.

    1)And beating up dragons for their lunch money

    2)Which largely consisted of Celestia and Luna getting the politicians to bloody well leave it alone

    3)Aw heck with you all, that was FUNNY.

    Chapter 23

    Prince Blueblood was relaxing in his family's royal suite in Canterlot Castle, or at least trying to. It had been trying times, to say the least, between the political fallout from the coronation of the new princess, the arrival of the delegates and an entire platoon-- flock?-- herd?--- of nigh-cosmic entities, each comparable to Celestia and Luna in power and influence, and dear Pater's own demented ambitions and outrageous demands. Between his current shenanigans and that little debacle with the attempted betrothal-- he winced and adjusted his seating-- Prince Blueblood had decided to do everything in his power to stay out of the way and out of sight. To this end he was now hiding in this opulent chambers with nothing but his favorite fluffy bathrobe, his teddy bear (1)and a sundae large enough to take a bath in(2) to keep him company. The staff had been dismissed, with orders not to disturb him and that he was unavailable to anyone due to recuperating from something unpleasant, infectious and indeterminate. The doors were locked, the curtains drawn, the mail slot taped shut. All was well with the world, at least for the next six to eight hours.

    Alas for the Prince; unbeknownst to him, forces were aligning against him. Forces that were generally small, cute, and barely knee height, but which when on the move had caused princesses to blanch, armored soldiers to give pause, and city officials to re-check their heart medication.

    The Cutie Mark Crusaders were in the palace, and the forces of Chaos trembled.(3)

    By way of apology for the kerfluffle, the Ponyville foals-- and their parents, who had arrived on a wave of parental panic and recriminations against their wayward young-- had been granted an overnight stay at the palace in the guest suites. The parents in question had been somewhat mollified, and settled in to enjoy a little one-day respite.

    The children in question, however, were to get no rest. As soon as dusk fell, tiny dragonfire-delivered scrolls found their way to every child, ponyvillean and royalty alike. Instructions and a crudely drawn map to a hidden corner of the castle were provided. Normally some of them might have balked, but they were all chafing at their recent chastisem*nt and weren't in a mood to be good little colts and fillies. At their first opportunity they sneaked out and followed the map where it led.

    When they arrived, they found a dimly lit, broad storeroom of stone and heavy timber, with what looked like a small aqueduct running through the floor in the middle.Nyx, Spike, Bright Eyes, and Killdeer-adder waiting for them already... along with a small herd of colts and fillies. "Who are all these?" Gossamer squeaked, retreating to the rafters in alarm.

    "Oh, um, right, introductions," Nyx said. "Everypony, this is Gossamer, Po, Songhili, you already know Killdeer-adder, and Doubloon should be here soon--"

    There was a splash, and the merpony surfaced from the aqueduct. There were coos of wonder from the Ponyville foals."Got here as soon as I could," Doubloon said, tossing her mane back. "You would not be-LIEVE how many drainpipes and aqueducts run through this place. Cuh-razy." She looked over at the herd. "Who's all this?"

    Nyx started over with the introductions. "Sweetiebelle, Applebloom, Scootaloo, Pipsqueak--"

    "No way I'd miss this!"

    "--Twist, Flitter, Featherweight, and Rumble.."

    "We met the other day."

    "Truffle, Dinky, and of course you know Bright Eyes and Spike..."

    "Here we go again--"

    "Shuddup, Spike."

    "I know you guys were here already," Gossamer said, flitting in a circle around Applebloom, "But how'd you get all these other ponies into the castle without anypony noticing?" Gossamer said.

    Killdeer chuckled. "Easy." He pointed to an enormous shipping crate sitting in one corner of the room, at the bottom of a loading ramp.

    "Pony Delivery, shipping anywhere in the Canterlot region within the hour," Spike said.

    "This room used to be a wine cellar," Nyx said. "They'd drop off barrels of wine and other stuff here--" she pointed to the doors at the top of the loading ramp-- "and then they'd float them out down the aqueduct here, to the rest of the castle. They stopped using this room after they got a better system of magical dumbwaiters in, but never bothered to bar it up." She smirked proudly. "I found this place in 'Canterlot, a History."

    "We just had them deliver the crate to loading dock 13, and bribed the delivery pony with muffins," Adder said.

    "Couldn't have been a comfortable ride," Doubloon noted.

    Flitter grinned and held up an empty flask. "Good thing we slept through it," she said. "We borrowed a batch of Applebloom's Sleep Like a Log potion and we all dosed up before we got in."

    "We know, I'm still picking leaves out of my mane," Truffle said, scratching.

    It had been a source of discombobulation to the CMC when Applebloom, despite having a hammer and wrench in her cutie mark, started taking up potion making as well. As she explained it though, her special talent wasn't just about mechanics or carpentry; it was about putting things together---to make something entirely different and new. As from her perspective there was a perfectly normal continuum between putting together boards and nails and paint into a new piece of carpentry, bits and parts of a machine into a new gadget, or herbs and chemicals into an elixir.... usually with rather exciting results. It tended to get particularly hair-raising when she started applying her potions knowledge to her mechanical inventions.(4)

    "So what did you want us all for, Nyx?" Sweetiebelle said.

    Nyx bit her lip. Actually, she hadn't wanted all of them. She and Spike just sent out the call for help because they had no idea how many would even be able to respond. "It was a general call for whoever could make it," Spike interjected. "This is kind of big."

    "It better be," Truffle said. " If our parents find out we ran off to Canterlot without their permission--" he left the threat dangling in the air.

    "You mean when," Flitter pointed out. "In for a penny, in for a bit." Truffle and Dinky in particular looked anxious. "Hey, if you didn't want to get in trouble, why'd you come?"

    The two holdouts blushed. "Twist/Pipsqueak came," they said. Glances and muttered excuses revealed that many of those present had likewise seen the other crusaders up to something and had been loth to be left out. "Well, like you said, we're in the soup," Flitter said, facehoofing. "So this better be good."

    "Guys, guys, GUYS!" Nyx shouted, clapping her hooves together. Everypony turned to her. She hiccuped and did Aunt Cadence's breathing exercise a few times. Once she had her nerves under control she spoke. "Look, I'm sorry some of you might get in trouble, but a lot of us are in trouble already anyway," she said. "In fact everypony's in trouble. My mom, the Princesses, these guys--" she waved to the brat pack-- " me, everypony."

    "That's what you said in the note," Pipsqueak said. "The Princesses are really in trouble?"

    Nyx took a deep breath and nodded. "A bunch of-- a bunch of royal plotheads are trying to get the Princesses in trouble," she said. "Cause they want to take the Princesses off the throne, and put their own King or Queen in their place." A collective gasp went up.

    "Can they do that?" Dinky asked.

    Nyx nodded. "If they get the Princesses in enough trouble," she said.

    Applebloom waved a hoof. "Maybe y' better start over at the beginnin', Nyx," she said.

    Nyx nodded. "You know all those newspaper stories that came out about us...?" she started.

    The explanation was long, but thorough. The ones newest to it were getting increasingly agitated. "So let me get this straight," Truffle said. "These Bluebloods and their friends sent out ships to the Western Sea after Nightmare Moon, um, I mean, after you--"

    "Nightmare Nyx?" Sweetiebelle suggested.

    Truffle nodded. "That works. After Nightmare Nyx, these Bluebloods and their friends sent out ships full of ponies to the Western sea to convince everypony out there to blame the Princesses for everything and to sue Equestria. 'Cause they hope if they make things bad enough for the Princesses, the Princesses will be forced to leave the throne-- and then they can put their OWN pony up there instead and rule Equestria with an iron hoof."

    "Pretty much," Nyx said.

    "So why aren't the Princesses just arresting these guys?" Truffle concluded.

    "Because they can't prove it," Applebloom said. "There's no evidence, just lots a' gossip and rumor and coincidences."

    "I bet they could ruddy find some, if they looked hard enough," Pipsqueak said.

    Nyx shook her head. "Not if the Princesses are too busy to handle it. Like, right now. With the Council and the kingdoms and all that stuff going on. Especially right now, with Mom preparing her presentation for the Council. That's why they did that gossip paper thing...to make things harder on her, to keep her distracted."

    Pipsqueak scowled. "And I'm guessing that gossip story was just the first shot across the bow," he said.

    Nyx nodded. "Mom figures it's just the first one," she said. "That the Bluebloods are going to mess things up for us as much as they can, by starting more and more rumors about her, and me, the other princesses, till nopony reading the papers knows what's true and what's not."

    "What a bunch of rotters!" Pipsqueak exclaimed. There was a chorus of agreement.

    "Tho what are we thupothed to do?" Twist asked.

    Nyx got a cunning look on her face. "Mom and the Princesses can't prove the Bluebloods did anything, 'cause they don't have any evidence. But if WE got the evidence..."

    Featherweight pointed a hoof. "If we got proof that the Bluebloods were responsible for the gossip story, or for the whisper campaign out in the Western Sea, or any of it, then the whole thing blows up in their faces."

    "Like a party cannon full of cake batter," Scootaloo said, grinning and rubbing her hooves together.

    Nyx stood to her full height. Every being present stilled and put their full attention on her; Anypony there could feel a Moment(5) happening. "It comes down to this," she said. "We're ALL in the sling right now. All of us Royal Brats are in trouble with our parents, even if it wasn't our fault, because we ended up in a tabloid." Several of the Brats, especially Killdeer-Adder, looked glum. "Sweetiebelle, Scootaloo, Applebloom? Half of Ponyville thinks it's you that wrote that awful story-- and that Featherweight took the pictures." The trio looked steamed and Featherweight grimaced. "The Princesses and Equestria are in trouble with the whole darn world... because of me, first," she said looking ashamed, but her shame turned to defiance," but then because these greedy plotheads wanted to steal the throne, and they didn't care who they messed with along the way.

    "And they think they're gonna get away with it. You know why?" She paused for effect. "Because they think everypony is too afraid of getting in troubleto stop them." Her scowl turned into a smirk. "Well bad news for them. We're already in trouble. And it sure as heck hasn't slowed us down before!" Surprisingly dark chuckles filled the room.

    She stopped a moment, and scuffed a line in the dust in front of her. She stepped back. "I know it's a lot to ask," she went on. "A lot of you could just go home and forget about this, or lay low till your parents and friends forget about this. But anypony that wants to help me with this, step over this line and--" Before she even finished the sentence the whole gang, Royal Brats and Cutie Mark Crusaders, had stepped over the line to join her. Nyx's eyes puddled up. "You guys are all the greatest," she said, wiping her eyes on her leg.

    "Ehh, we know it," Scootaloo said, smirking.

    Poor Po looked out of his depth. "I cannot believe I am doing this," he said. Then he sighed. "But Master Zeng He... he looks at me with such shame now. He will not even stay in the same room with me..." he looked up. "If I can win back even a glimmer of pride in his eyes, it will be worth any world of woe I suffer."

    "All right," Killdeer said, offering up his fist, "Let's show these Blueballs what getting in trouble REALLY is! brohoof, dudes!" The mob gave a group hoof/paw/fist bump and a whoop.

    "So what's the plan, Nyx?" Applebloom said.

    "Spike?" Nyx said. Spike thumped his chest and gave a belch. A stack of rolled papers appeared out of the smoke cloud and landed in his claws. He carried them over to the table-- an old door laid across some barrel halves-- and spread them out. "This is a really big plan," Nyx said. "And a lot of it isn't filled in, 'cause I didn't know who would be able to help. But if we work together we should pull it off."

    She pointed to a map of the castle's floor plan, and to one particular section circled in purple crayon. "The main goal is to get into the Blueblood's private suite, find the incrinimenting evidence--"

    "Incriminating," Sweetiebelle said.

    "Whatever. We find the evidence, get the evidence, and get it to the Princesses before anypony can stop us."

    (6)"The first part is going to be the trickiest. We have to get the Blueblood's personal itiner-- intner-- internalary-- phooey, their daily schedule. We have to know where Duke Blueblood, duch*ess Blueblood, and Prince Blueblood are gonna be all day. To do that we have to get into the royal clerical pool, get to the Blueblood's personal file, and sneak out a copy. Since Flitter's here, that's her job. Think you can do it?"

    Flitter scuffed a hoof against her chest. "Hey, if I couldn't--"

    Killdeer frowned at this, puzzled. "Why would she--" Up to this point Flitter had been in her typical disguise; a green filly with a long pink mane and a mask cutie mark. There was a flare of green and she returned to her normal changeling form. Killdeer and Adder both gave a tiny scream.

    "I'm a Changeling," she said. "Got a problem with that, handsome?"

    "Why no, no none at all," Adder said. "Nope, no problem," Killdeer said. Both of their voices were unnaturally high.

    "Okay good," Nyx said. "But first, we gotta find Blueblood's REAL secretary and keep them out of the way. We'll need a distraction. And that's where you come in, Dinky..."

    The castle's clerical pool was greeted to an unusual sight that morning. In the midst of dozens of ponies in cubicles hauling stacks of papers back and forth, shuffling through rolodexes and perusing filing cabinets came a tiny blonde-and-grey unicorn filly bearing a bakery box on her back and dragging her hooves like it was the end of the world. Small foals (and baked goods) don't escape notice long in a secretarial pool; one of the mares looked up from her work and leaned down to look at her. "Oh dear," she said. "Why the sad face, sweetheart?"

    Dinky lifted up her tear-streaked face. "I- I lost my mommy," she quavered. It wasn't entirely an act. Dinky was the youngest member of the CMC, and sneaking away from her beloved mommy in the middle of the night had been a little bit more naughtiness than she could bear."I, I wanted to surprise her with some muffins," she said, "So I sneaked aboard the delivery truck she worked on, but when I got out she wasn't there and I was losted in this big castle and I'm gonna be in trouble and..." tears gushed down her face.

    Hearts harder than stone had cracked under that onslaught before; the clerical mares around her were not made of nearly such stern stuff.(7) They abandoned their work en masse to flock around the distraught little filly, cooing and inquiring after her Mommy's name and who she worked for...

    Nyx, watching with her little magic pocket mirror, nodded in satisfaction; just as she'd planned. She'd felt awful when she saw Dinky had come along, so this worked out perfectly. The secretaries would contact Derpy's delivery company, Derpy would race over to pick up the filly and take her home. That would get the littlest Crusader back home safe and hopefully in as little trouble as possible. And hopefully the double-thick pudding-filled banana-blueberry muffins would mollify Derpy a little too.

    Plus, they got their distraction.

    "Okay, Flitter," she whispered into her Crystal Empire walkie-talkie. "Go!"

    There was a faint flash of green from a nearby broom closet, and Flitter emerged. She was disguised as a nondescript office worker, and slipped effortlessly into the clerical offices without anypony even looking up from the poor lost little unicorn. She moved rapidly from desk to desk and cubicle to cubicle, then meandered her way around the room, tapping something behind her ear. "Did you find her?" Nyx whispered.

    "Oh yeah," came back the answer. "Black mane, orange coat, third desk from the far right."

    "How could you tell?" somepony else on the channel said.

    "Easy," Flitter said dryly. "She had a piece of Blueblood's stationery on her desk, a jumbo bottle of aspirin, and was nursing a pinched butt." Giggles and snickers popped and crackled on the walkie talkie line.

    "Okay," Nyx said. "Step two..."

    "How do we keep the real secretary out of the way?" Applebloom asked.

    "An extra-strong dose of your Sleep Like a Log potion should do the trick," Nyx said. All we have to do is slip it into their coffee..."

    Nopony saw Flitter's partner Bright Eyes slip into the room. Nopony saw him walk up to the hapless secretary's desk and empty a test tube into the secretary's coffee while Flitter distracted her with office small talk.Nopony saw him slip out the same door, mission done. Of course, if anypony had, then there wouldn't have been much point in sending an invisible unicorn to do the job, would there?

    The next moment Flitter was chivvying an increasingly groggy mare out to the restroom to freshen up. She took a detour and plunked the mare down in an abandoned office just as the potion took full effect. A blanket, a locked door, and a do not disturb sign and the secretary was left blissfully sleeping away her otherwise unhappy work day, an apology muffin on the dusty desk before her and a few small leaves sprouting from her ears. Flitter, now disguised as the secretary, returned to the office and began rifling through her desk and cabinets.

    A half hour of nervous sweating, and a close shave when some obvious close acquaintances came around to her cubicle, and she had the file. She made her way briskly out of the office, returned to the broom closet, and climbed up into the ventilation ducts with her prize. "I have the itinerary, we are go!" she whispered into her walkie talkie gleefully.

    She loved spy movies.

    A hasty retreat was made to the abandoned wine cellar, where the others were waiting. Most of them had been in and out, keeping their parents, elders and guardians complacent about their whereabouts; Others were busy using Spike's flame-mail to drop notes in handy places "reminding" their parents that they had a Cutie Mark Crusader meeting, or that A was meeting B or B was seeing A... this little one-hour window was all they had to get together to plan, and they had to plan quickly.

    Nyx chewed her lip. "This doesn't look good," she said. "They're all going to be in and out all over the place today. There's really only one time where everypony-- the Duke, the duch*ess, all their help-- is going to be out." She pointed at the schedule. "Right here at lunchtime. That's only about an hour to search the entire suite for anything. This is really cutting it close."

    "Why is it cutting close?" Killdeer asked.

    "Because villains always make it so the heroes cutting it close to being too late," Pipsqueak said knowledgeably. Nyx nodded. Everypony knew that. Why else was Daring Do always escaping death traps and rescuing people and stopping evil ceremonies 'just in the nick of time?'

    "More likely," Songhili said softly, "Because your mother is making her presentation to both the Assembly of Kings and the Council at that time. And if Duke Blueblood was planning to pull something dastardly... that would be the time to do it." That somber bit of analysis had everyone looking grim. Nyx especially. Twilight had been practically barricaded in the Starswirl the Bearded wing with Ink Spot, Time Turner and a small army of workers, working nonstop to prepare... whatever it was she was preparing. If anything interrupted her or messed up her work, it could be very very bad. Hopefully what we're doing will distract the Bad Guys long enough for her to finish, she thought.

    "We'll just have to all go in together," Scootaloo said. "Turn the whole place upside down, grab whatever we can find." She was a long time advocate of the zerg rush model of problem solving.

    "Sounds like it. But first we gotta take care of the guards and any help that might be there," Applebloom pointed out.

    "More potion?" Gossamer suggested.

    Applebloom shook her head. "All out," she said. "That's another thing, we gotta get the stuff before that secretary wakes up and sounds the alarm. She'll be conked out till at least sundown... or should be... but if somepony finds her first, it's all gonna come unglued."

    "Besides, the guards aren't allowed to eat or drink anything while on duty," Killdeer pointed out. "Kinda to keep things like that from happening."

    "Sneak in the windows?" Gossamer suggested.

    "Pegasus guards,"Featherweight said.

    Nyx nodded. "Okay, we don't need the guards to go away long, just long enough for us to get in.." she mumbled to herself. "Okay, um, we're gonna need to make another sacrifice play like with Dinky... we gotta borrow some stuff from the cafeteria."

    The guards standing outside the Blueblood's door raised their eyebrows as a rather enormous serving cart with a lidded tray on top trundled down the corridor towards them. It got rather close before they saw it was being pushed by a rather pudgy little colt in a busboy uniform; the little fellow was huffing and puffing as he strained to push the cart down the carpeted floor. he finally reached the door with a bump and stopped, leaning against the cart and mopping the sweat from his brow. "Dinner for his Lordship the Duke and his family," he said.

    The guards' expressions didn't change. "The Bluebloods are unavailable at this time and are not to be disturbed," he said.

    Truffle did his best bluster. "Well nopony in the kitchens told ME that," he said. "Look, I hauled this heavy-butt meal all the way up here and..."

    The guard's ear twitched; he heard something that sounded suspiciously like a stifled giggle. "Yeah, awful heavy for just a cart full of food," he said. He reached out with the butt of his spear and swept the drapery around the cart aside(why DID they make them with those anyway?) revealing two fillies, a white unicorn with a pink and lavender mane and a cream colored earthpony with a frizzy red mane and enormous glasses, crammed together underneath. They let loose with an earsplitting squeal; a flashbulb popped in his face, temporarily blinding him.

    "EEEEEE! Prince BLUEBLOOD!" The unicorn squealed.

    "Did you get the picthure? Did you get the picthure?" the earthpony said.

    "Wait, you're not Blueblood-- Where's Prince Blueblood?" the unicorn hopped out and began running around between the guards' legs, pointing her tiny camera in every direction.

    "I swear I didn't know!" the pudgy colt yelled. "I really really didn't-- Okay, they paid me fifty bits--"

    "Oh for crying out..." one of the guards said. Then the covered dish on the cart rattled. "What the...?" He lifted the domed lid off to find a diminutive piebald colt hiding underneath. The colt sat up. "Are we in? Are we in yet? Oh blimey, guards!" He hopped off and bolted down the hall.

    "Come back here, you!" One of the guards took off after him.

    Up in the rafters, Gossamer was observing, and holding a hoof mirror up so the others could as well. Nyx was pleased with the results. Sweetie, Twist and Pip could do "fan-filly" and "fan-colt" better than anypony she knew. Well, other than Scootaloo when Rainbow Dash was involved. The first guard ran off down the hall after Pipsqueak, who was giving him one hell of a run for his money. The second guard wasn't going for the bait, though; he was staying right at his post by the door.

    Apparently Sweetiebelle had a flash of inspiration. "Wait-- he's one of Prince Blueblood's personal guards!!" she squealed. She jumped up and, catching the guard completely by surprise, snatched his helmet right off his head. She threw it to Twist, who caught it neatly. "Prince Blueblood probably touched this! It'll sell for a fortune on eHay!"(8)

    The two bolted off with their prize... turning left where Pip had turned right, the angry guard right behind them. Everyone in the hidey hole gave each other high-hooves. "Now for the outside guards," Nyx said.

    The pegasi watching the windows and rooftops outside the Blueblood's quarters were enjoying a nice, dull, routine shift. That promptly got interrupted by the flash of a camera bulb. Every guards' eye tracked to it; hovering outside the Bluebloods' windows was a skinny pegasus kid (how did he get that close without being spotted??) with a camera nearly as big as himself. He was cheerfully snapping away like there was no tomorrow.

    If the guards had their way, there wouldn't be. All six of them dropped off the roof and formed a circle around him, hovering with their spears raised. "Halt!" one shouted, making the colt nearly jump out of his skin. "All right, kid, you're coming with us. Drop the camera!"

    Featherweight looked at them, astonished... then grinned. "Okay," he said, and dropped the expensive piece of photography equipment like it was nothing. It tumbled three stories down....

    To land in the waiting arms of an orange pegasus on a scooter. She stuffed the camera into her backpack and rocketed off down the street, wings buzzing like mad.

    The moment the guards turned their attention away from Featherweight, he shot skyward. Featherweight's talent was surprisingly multifaceted; he could hover as lightly and quietly as a moth on the wing. He was incredibly maneuverable, making deft twists and turns with a flick of his wings. He could also carry a surprising amount of weight into the air, despite his tiny frame-- in his hooves it was practically weightless. But once he dropped whatever load he was carrying, he was like an olympic sprinter who'd just stripped off all his training weights; he was a tiny, skinny pegasus arrow that almost nopony in his class could touch.

    Nopony except maybe Scootaloo. Scootaloo had finally outgrown her handicap and was a fairly good flier, but even now she was an absolute demon on wheels. She was tearing off through the alleys of Canterlot like she had rockets under her tail.

    Enraged-- and not a little flabbergasted-- the pegasus guards split up and took off after the two surprise speedsters in what would prove a futile chase.

    From a nearby cloudtop Peewee hovered, a hoof mirror clutched in his claws, capturing everything in its reflection. On the other end, Spike called in the all-clear. The Brat Pack and the CMC, inside and out, emerged from their hiding places in bushes, trash cans, broom closets and potted plants and converged like a parasprite swarm on the Bluebloods' unprotected suite.

    "Uh oh," Doubloon said. "We've got a problem."

    "Where?" Nyx asked. Doubloon pointed to a hoof-written note at the bottom of the schedule.

    "This here. It says that Prince Blueblood is cancelling all his appointments for the next couple of days. He's gonna be holed up in the suite until next week. We can't search the place with him still in it!"

    Nyx's brow furrowed and her nose scrunched as she thought furiously. "We can if we're sneaky," she said. "And if we keep him busy..." She gave Doubloon a look. "There's something you might be able to do..." she said cautiously.

    "I was wondering if there was anything I could contribute," Doubloon said, relieved. "What is it?"

    Nyx rolled her eyes. "Well... I hear that Prince Blueblood is obsessed with mermaids..."

    The baths in the Blueblood suite were on the same order of scale as the ones in Twilight's observatory tower or Celestia and Luna's own chambers. By design. Duke Blueblood, in another example of his incredible pettiness, insisted on making every amenity at his disposal-- whether in the castle, in his own mansion, on his sky yacht, or anywhere else-- match or outshine the princess' own, wherever possible, regardless of the expense. It was thus he had an entire room in the castle refurbished to house an enormous sunken bath that (he was certain) would outshine Celestia's own. It was also, alas, a reflection of his family's extraordinary lack of taste, with tackiness practically hammered into every gold-plated fixture and baroque decoration.

    It was, on the other hand, quite spacious and luxurious enough. Since Prince Blueblood was in a state of self-enforced idleness and had finished off the last of his sundae, he had decided to avail himself of it by spending the entire day soaking in it. He had locked the door behind him, drawn an enormous bubble bath, put his mane up in curlers, and sank with a sigh of pleasure into the steaming water.

    A blissful hour passed. Everything was perfect. Except... perhaps... maybe a massage, just to round things out. He availed himself of the bell-pull, summoning someone from the on-call castle staff. And waited. And waited. He gave the bell pull a frown. Was there something wrong with it?

    There was, of course. Gossamer had unhooked it.

    Prince Blueblood was pondering actually getting up to go fetch someone, when something surfaced at the other end of his bath. A freckled orange pony with a liquid gold mane shook the foam out of her eyes and looked at him. Her fluked tail arched over her back. "Boy, you ponies have huge bathtub drains," she said. She tossed her mane and fluttered her eyelashes at him. "Why hello."

    Blueblood blinked. It was the third weirdest thing he'd found in the bathtub this week.(9)

    Outside the bathroom, the CMC/Royal Brat coalition was searching through the suite as quickly as they could, frantically torn between the need to be quick, and the need to be quiet. They had found incredible amounts of tacky clothing, stacks of cancelled invitations, and in one of Duke Blueblood's closet a number of magazines of perturbing pedigree, but nothing of import-- and time was running out.

    Nyx finally had a rush of logic to the brain and started looking for a study or office. She found it soon enough; a cramped, dark little room whose lock quickly yielded to her horn, filled mostly with a rolltop desk and stacks of papers and files. Square in the center of the desk was an expensive looking briefcase. She examined it; a tiny brass plaque read "property of HRM Duke Blueblood."

    "Bingo," Nyx breathed, popping the latch.

    For whatever reason, Duke Blueblood had failed to lock it. The lid sprang open, and inside were a number of very important looking papers indeed. Nyx magically flipped through them-- private notes from other nobles, maps, telegrams, and... astronomical charts? She started skimming through the letters and charts. There were a lot of footnotes and some very, very old runes.. and some very modern looking math. Much of it looked like the stuff Mom was working on herself. There was a note pinned to the chart; she read it carefully, squinting at the penmanship. They were reassuring Duke Blueblood about something called the Golden Sunrise, and that it would assure unicorn dominance for centuries to come...

    She looked at the chart again and saw something that made her gasp. She didn't know what exactly it meant but it was enough to make fear crawl up around her heart.

    In the diagram, the moon and sun were wreathed in flame.

    Ironically, had they just left him alone, the CMC would have arrived and departed with Blueblood none the wiser...

    In passing it must be said that certain sorts of innocence that have sadly long passed away from our own world still reside in the world of Equestria. Among these is a certain sort of justified naivete. a purity of heart that would not even entertain certain evils as a thought, much less a possibility. Prince Blueblood was a cad and a ponce, but by the standards of our wicked world he would be regarded almost as pure as the driven snow. Save for rude and uncouth behavior--- and maybe him being mean enough to eat a lollipop in front of them without sharing--- any foal in Equestria would be as safe in his presence as in their own mother's arms.

    Of course this innocence of spirit was not limited to himself, and was in the end the CMC's own undoing. They were in the end children, and while romance was starting to catch their interest, some of the finer workings that motivated it were still a mystery to them...In short, when they asked Doubloon to occupy Prince Blueblood by flirting with him, it never occurred to any of them that he would have absolutely no interest in a filly young enough to be his daughter.

    "Aww, but don't you want to talk to me? Get to know me better?" Doubloon said, looking over her shoulder and doing a terrible vamp.

    Blueblood had abandoned the bath and donned his fuzzy robe. He stood at the side of the bath, his brows beetled under his curlers. "No," he said. "And stop that. You look ridiculous." He glared at her, then at her pet seal who had joined them a moment ago. "How the devil did you get--- no, never mind that. WHY the devil are you..." he had to pause to wonder whether he even cared to know that, either.

    "Aww, I heard that there was a prince in the palace who dreamed of meeting a lovely young seapony filly," she mock-pouted.

    " "Young mare," not "just out of diapers," " Blueblood said, patronizing annoyance in his voice. He pulled on the bellcord a half dozen more times. "And I do not appreciate having my bath disturbed by children and their pets!" he gave up on the bell cord and stomped for the door. "I'm calling the guards and I'm having you hauled back to King Triton's guest quarters---"

    "GET HIM, SONG!" Doubloon shouted, pointing a hoof at the retreating Prince. The seal leaped into action. He jumped out of the bath and, half flippering, half belly-sliding on the tiles, went after Blueblood, orking and barking ferociously. Blueblood saw the sea beast coming and with a shriek like a filly began running around the bath, the angry seal hot on his heels.

    Out in the main suite, the other children heard the ruckus. "Oh horseapples," Applebloom said. "We're out of time."

    Nyx came running out of the study, the briefcase in her magical grip. "I found it, I found it!" she said. The others huddled around and looked into the briefcase. Most could make neither heads nor tails of it, but it looked sinister enough. "We gotta get this to the princess!" Spike said.

    There was a series of loud bangs. The hinges and bolts on the locked bathroom door exploded. The door fell flat into the room, and standing behind it was a disheveled and angry looking Prince Blueblood. Behind him were a seapony and a selkie wrapped in cocoons of magically charged towels. He clapped eyes on the mob of foals, focused in on the briefcase... it took him a mere second to realize that oh gods and imps, his idiot father had brought incriminating evidence home with him. "Give me that briefcase!!" he roared.

    "BAIL!" Spike yelled. Screaming, the mob of foals bolted for the door. Nyx slammed the case shut and ran after them, clutching it tight in her magic. She was yanked up short as Blueblood's magic lassoed her. For a brief terrifying moment she slid back towards the furious prince...

    Then Spike stepped between them. He growled, flexed, and began growing. Blueblood "eeped" and his magic popped like a soap bubble. Behind him Songhili and Doubloon made their escape through the tub. Spike reached eight feet, ten-- then stopped, face contorting in agony as he clutched his gut, and shrank back to his normal size like a deflating balloon. Nyx grabbed him in her magic and ran for the door, dragonling brother and incriminating briefcase sailing after her. After a moment's shaking off his surprise, Blueblood gave pursuit.

    Outside, Scootaloo, Rumble and Featherweight were still keeping the guards busy with a game of Camera Keepaway. They dodged through buildings and chimneys, wheelborne, airborne, tossing the camera back and forth, losing the guards for a moment only to have them catch up again... but they were flagging fast; three adolescent foals didn't have the stamina of trained soldiers, and more and more of the guards were joining in.

    At the last second, just before they would have been snagged, Killdeer-Adder joined in the game. He swooped down on his skyboard, snatching the camera out of Scootaloo's arms and pulling an alley-oop between two buildings barely three feet apart. Instincts are instincts, and the pursuing guards immediately abandoned Scootaloo and Featherweight-- who promptly went to cover-- to pursue the bigger, larger, and more obvious target.

    For the first time since arriving in Equestria, Killdeer-Adder were in their element. The high towers of Canterlot were embraced by the mountain winds, winds that curled and rose and swooped in a dance they'd had been reading by instinct since the first day they'd picked up a skyboard. The huge, leaf-shaped board--- in truth, more of a cloth sail one might find on a sailboard--- caught the currents and updrafts or cut through them as they pleased; they wove and sailed through the buildings and towers and up into the sky through vortexes the pegasi pursuing them could only power through by brute force. Adder whooped as he teased and weaved back and forth, throwing their weight one way and then the next, Killdeer working the board so they cut curls through the updrafts that would have left the gryphon girls back home swooning, they were flying circles around the sky-ponies, and they were barely flapping their wings!

    Despite the situation, despite the growing number of guards closing in, despite how much incredibly gnarly trouble they were in, Killdeer grinned into the sun like a maniac and recited the skysurfer mantra.

    "We are a leaf on the wind," he said. "Watch how we soar. Oh yeah."

    The chase indoors was far less dramatic and far more brief. Blueblood could see the briefcase; he wasn't liable to be distracted by them splitting up. And in their panic the CMC was far less aware of their surroundings than he was. They merely pelted pell-mell down the hallways, hoping to be headed in the general direction of the Princesses, the Council, Miss Cheerilee, any benevolent authority figure at all.

    Blueblood galloped along in pursuit, swearing silently to himself and fuming. He hated sweating. Hated it! And where were all the blasted GUARDS?

    It ended soon enough, to Blueblood's relief. The mob of brats took a wrong turn and found themselves in a dead end. They crowded together, rumps to the wall, clutching the briefcase between them. Nyx hastily popped open the case and shoved it towards Spike. "Quick! Flame-mail it all! Hurry!"

    Spike, still looking queasy from his botched growth, still managed to comply. He spit a gout of flame into the case. It flared, then snuffed out. Baffled, he tried again, with the same results. "It's not working!" he said, panicking.

    "Of course not," Prince Blueblood said, magically yanking the case out of his grip. "Magic-proof paper."

    "No..." Nyx said, clutching after the lost case. The expressions of despair on the foal's faces was eloquent.

    Behind the Prince, a half dozen guards came galloping up. He looked over his shoulder at them scornfully. "Remind me to speak to your commanding officer," he said scathingly. He looked in the case and started shuffling papers to make sure nothing had been damaged, scanning the notes and diagrams for burns.

    Then he froze, and started reading.

    The transformation that overcame him was startling. His scornful expression melted like wax into one of horror and shock. His hind legs gave out, his hooves slipping out from under him. His rump hit the floor with a thump, his eyes never leaving the papers before him. "No," he said. "No, great Maker no. He's mad. They're all mad. Mad as hatters!"

    The case fell to the floor. "Your Highness, what do you want us to do?" one of the guards asked.

    Blueblood looked up. "Take me-- no, take all of us-- to the Princesses. Right now." he got to his feet. "We've got to save the world from my idiot father!"

    1)grim fate awaited anypony on staff who revealed its existence.

    2)He had vices, but he liked to vary them up as much as possible.

    3)Actually he giggled a lot and rolled over in his sleep, but that was disturbing enough.

    4)After the zap-apple potion powered corn shucker, Applejack found herself pining for the days when Applebloom was just partially destroying the neighborhood looking for her cutie mark...

    5)Not automatically a full blown historic moment. But at least 3/5 on the Patton scale.

    6)Cue your Mission Impossible soundtrack, kids.

    7)In another timeline even Tirek had gone "d'aww" before draining her of her magic.

    8)A mail-in bidding auction house franchise. You could find their storefront auction houses in most major cities.

    9)Topped out only by a flock of live ducks and several thousand gallons of instant pudding. Mother really did have terrible employee relations skills.

    Chapter 24

    The night was soft and cool; the skies clear of any cloud. For once the city lights of Canterlot did not dim the stars above; the Milky Way shone down with unusual brilliance, and the moon waxed full-- and far larger and brighter than it had any business being. Celestia looked up at it and smiled ruefully to herself. Meddling little sister, she thought.

    She stepped out into the garden, her ever-present guards trailing behind her, discreetly in the shadows. The note had requested her presence here. It was an interesting choice, a perfect sort of middle ground--- half day-blooming flowers, magically teased into opening under the flickering lamps, all the vivid colors and bright greens of a sunlit meadow, gathered to the very edge of an enormous sunken fountain whose waters sparkled and glimmered in the moonlight. Perfect for negotiation between the sun and the sea.

    Then she saw the picnic laid out in the grass between the blooms and the sparkling fountain. A simple repast, bread, cheese, a bottle of the castle's finest wine ...Perhaps something more than mere diplomacy? Could she hope?

    He was standing there next to the waters, his own trident-bearing guards in their water bubbles just out of hoof's reach. He was handsome as ever, his seafoam mane rippling in a current only he felt, his scaled sides glittering in the moonlight. "Celestia," he said, smiling carefully. "As beautiful by night as by day."

    Her heart fluttered as she stepped out to him. "Kind as always," she said.

    "At loss for sufficient words, more like," he said. Then he flushed, retreating carefully behind dignity. "So..." he looked away. "Here we are."

    Her brow quirked at his sudden caution. Was there something amiss? She played along. "Yes. Here we are."

    They stared at each other for the longest moment. A few dozen subplots from bad romance novels collided in her head. "You... didn't write a note summoning me here, did you," she finally asked, defeated.

    He frowned. "No. Didn't you...?"

    Celestia blew out a huff of exasperation and stamped her hoof. "LUNA!" she yelled.

    A window overlooking the garden opened and a star-maned head stuck out. "What?"

    "Don't you 'what' me! You know what you did!!"

    "So?" Luna challenged. For a miracle, still not using the Royal Canterlot Voice.

    "So this is not appropriate!! I do not need you meddling with--"

    "To mine eye, thou needest SOMEONE to lead thee by the hoof!" Luna shot back. "Old Maid!"

    "You little moon-addled brat!" Celestia fumed. "How could you--"

    Triton watched the squabbling exchange, comprehension... and incredible disappointment.... slowly spreading across his face. "I... I am sorry for my part in this," Triton said, embarrassment filling his voice. "Truly, I had no desire to be part of a ... sisterly prank..." He looked away.

    "...Prank?" Celestia said, dismayed.

    He turned away, his gaze fixed on the fountain. "I... would not wish to imperil our... diplomatic standing with one another with a misunderstanding like this," he said. "Of course. This sort of scenario is.... silly, could never be. Please believe me when I say you have my highest respect as a ruler and... and... I would never stoop to plying you with false emotions or intentions---"

    "Silly scenario? False emotions?" Celestia's heart cracked a little bit more with each word. He truly had no interest in her? He truly only saw her as another ruler, another empty figurehead...?

    "I will be going now, I---"

    THOOF. without warning a clod of earth and greenery came hurtling down and struck him between the ears. Dirt sprayed everywhere. He staggered in surprise. His guards snapped their tridents upward in the direction of the attack, scanning the sky in confusion.

    It took a moment for Celestia to realize that Luna had snatched a plant on her balcony out of its pot and chucked it, earth-clod and all, at the sea king's head. "Thou JOLT HEADED LOON!"Luna bellowed down in exasperation. "SHE FAVORS THEE!"

    He shook his head and swiveled his ears in surprise. Celestia had to choke back a snort of laughter; an enormous begonia planted in the clod sprouted up between his ears. His expression of astonishment and confusion only made it funnier. "T-Truly?" he stammmered, coltishly, his eyes as round as saucers.

    Celestia didn't know whether to laugh or cry, so she did both. "Yes!" She managed to gasp out.

    His mouth worked silently. "How... how..."

    "How what?"

    "How long... have I been blind to this?" he gulped, chagrined.

    "For centuries! Millennia!" Celestia said, relieved, happy, angry, exasperated. "I threw every hint at you I could, but..."

    "But you were always so aloof, so proper..." he said.

    "And you wore the mask so well..." Celestia said.

    He fell silent. Wordlessly he brushed the clod of earth off his head. "You truly do... favor me?" he said, still as a statue, vulnerable and frightened as a colt.

    She nodded. "But..." tears dotted her lashes, her heart on her sleeve, fluttering like a filly's. "Do you...do you favor--"

    Her words were halted by a kiss.

    Two immortals, both countless centuries old, and their first kiss was as awkward and tremulous as any teenage filly and colt's. She leaned into it anyway, swooning as if it were the champagne of kisses. Sweet and salty, like saltwater taffy... Their lips finally parted. She looked up into his eyes. "Oer a dozen centuries," she said, half gasping, half chuckling, "is a long time to wait for a first kiss..."

    "I am most glad we stopped waiting at the same time," Triton said, amused. Laughter bubbled up between them as they nuzzled. "What timing," he muttered. "Come tomorrow and kingdoms on the line, and now this--- But what now? What comes next?"

    Thoughts welled up, of their two kingdoms, of the terrible entanglement they were in, of conflicts and complications.... "Whatever may come, we will sort it out in time together," Celestia murmured.

    Luna chose to put her two bits in. "Thou hast the bread and the wine," she shouted down at them gleefully, "thou knowest what comes next!! Thou had best behave thyselves---"

    She ducked and ran for cover as two unpotted plants zinged past her head.

    The proceedings had resumed in the same chamber as before, with a few substantial differences. First, inside the ring formed by the seats of the Council of Stewards was now a new secondary ring of seats, intended for the Assembly of the Western Kingdoms. The press and the nobility of Canterlot had managed to crowd their way in as well. Some few cloud-seats had been made, floating halfway to the ceiling. Both groups were in full attendance, and the high-domed room was packed. Even the Mane Six were in full attendance... perched high above on a cloud of their own.

    Secondly, the podium at the center of the room had been removed, and a large, mechanical something, covered with a tarp, had taken its place. The device-- whatever it may have been--reached halfway to the peak of the dome, and seemed both voluminous and portentous under its concealing drape.

    The delegates settled in as the Firebird, now standing at a dais off to the side, called the assembly to order. ""Hear ye, Hear ye. The 1,352nd assembly of the Celestial Council of Stewards-- and the first joint assembly of the Celestial Council of Stewards and the Assembly of the Western Kingdoms-- is now reconvened." The spherical gavel rapped. "Let it be noted that we are here to observe the plea of justification on behalf of the Royal Alicorns of Equestria and the Kingdom of Equestria, presented by Her Highness Princess Twilight Sparkle."

    The lights dimmed slightly; Princess Twilight made her way down from the stands to the podium that sat next to the veiled construction. Screens around the upper dome lit up, showing her face in closeup. She was slightly haggard, with lines under her eyes and a mane that seemed just barely groomed-- but she exuded an air of confidence. "To the Council members, I thank you for this time and opportunity to make this presentation. Though I feel that I must make a correction, and state that this is not as much a plea for leniency or justification..." her eyes went steely."...as a critical review of the past record and performance of the Council itself."

    A stir went up at this. The Firebird banged the gavel for order. "Princess Twilight, you would be well informed to know that pleading that others have committed crimes is never a justification for one's own."

    "That remains to be seen," Twilight said tartly. "But I will state that my purpose in this will become clear as I proceed."

    The Firebird was silent for a moment. "Very well. Proceed."

    "Before we begin, it is necessary to establish for all present precisely how and why the Council of Celestial Stewards began," Twilight said. "Understand, that this knowledge is incredibly ancient, and has been all but forgotten-- save in a few archaic records preserved since time immemorial, to which I have been recently granted access. I have confirmed these findings in Equestria's own most ancient archives, and tested their modeling against known physics and math. they are correct." The lights dimmed, and a chart appeared on the circling screens; an illustration of a solar system-- one inverted from the one known to every entity in the room. Several tiny planets orbited a single, enormous sun."To begin at the beginning, our world was not always as it is now," Twilight said. "It was a single world among several, orbiting a star somewhere in the Milky Way." There was some surprised rumbling amongst the kingdoms, and among one or two of the council as well.

    The image zoomed in, showing a green and blue world dotted with clouds and orbited by a disproportionately large moon. "At that time, the natural forces-- the tide, the lunar cycle, the seasonal changes--- were all natural functions of the planet, its orbital period, its angle towards the sun, the corresponding orbits of its large natural satellite..." the animated diagram became dotted with mathematical formulae and short explanations. "Requiring no maintenance at all on part of the natives of the planet." This was greeted with another quiet uproar, till the Firebird sounded his gavel again.

    "This arrangement was quite satisfactory and continued for innumerable aeons," Twilight said. The image zoomed out till it contained the planet's entire orbit around its sun. "However, at some point the natives... our ancestors... determined that the star our world orbited was destablizing... and would soon explode." The animated star began jettisoning flares, spitting out corona, its illumination flaring and dimming.

    "To save themselves, they devised a desperate plan. They engineered a means to leave the solar system.

    "Through means still too arcane and advanced for us to even analyze, much less replicate, they used the planet's quintessance on the morphic resonance field--- what we call 'magic'--- to, basically, convert the kinetic energy of the moon's orbit and the planet's rotation into linear propulsion, and sling-shot our world out of its orbit." The lunar-solar orbit began to wobble wildly, like an athlete winding up for a hammer throw, then the planet was slung out into the void, its moon falling backward into the sun. "Their timing was impeccable; they were in the eclipse of one of the gas giants of the system when the sun finally blew." The planet passed into the shadow of one of the larger planets just as the central star blazed up. The screen flared white and then went dark.

    "Of course, this was not the end of the problem," Twilight said. "They now had a planet with no sun, which would soon freeze to death." The planetoid reappeared. "not only that, they no longer had the Moon's gravitational pull to turn the tides or stir the atmosphere, the planet's rotational period had been neutralized by the slingshot effect, ending the ocean currents and the jet streams, tectonic movement was fading, and the planet's protective magnetosphere was disappearing as well.

    "Of course, they had prepared." Two lights, one golden bright, one luminous blue white, appeared in orbit around the planet. "To provide light and warmth, they had created an artificial sun and moon--- the sun in particular is what they referred to as a "stabilized quantum singularity..." as best as we can understand it, an artifact that fuels itself by tapping directly into the thaumic plane. It pours out raw energy from the underfabric of the universe, creating light and warmth; the moon likewise is such an artifact--- which sheds light and quintessance, the stuff of magic as a byproduct.At the core of the earth is a similar "engine" which fuels tectonic movement and planetary motion through the void... as well as our greater motion through the depths of space, enabling us to avoid collision with wandering space debris...They created other thaumaturgic systems for the magnetosphere, for the tides and currents..." highlighted points appeared, outlining each of the systems she described. "For all of the major cycles which had been vital to the planet. Thus with magic and engineering they replaced all the life-sustaining cycles that our world had lost." She paused, dramatically.

    "Life support, climate control, propulsion, shielding, navigation..." as she spoke the highlighted points changed color. The holographic planet's image changed too, sprouting a nose cone at the North Pole, rockets at the South, guidance fins, stylish sci-fi force screens... a dull roar rose from the watching crowds. "In brief, they converted our planet into... a star ship."

    Absolute bedlam broke out. Even above it all, Rainbow Dash could be heard screaming "FAR FREAKIN' OUT!!" It took nearly fifteen minutes for everything to calm back down-- ten more for news reporters from every paper in Equestria to stop running out to message their home offices. Finally everything calmed down. One of the delegates from the Western Kingdoms finally stood up in the silence. "This is... extraordinary! Insane! Unbelievable! Do you have any proof?"

    Twilight hadn't turned a hair. "All our research and findings have been documented and copies are available on request," she said. "And they have been confirmed by the professors of Celestia's Academy, and with the members of the Council of Celestial Stewards."

    "Why was this kept secret?"

    "That's the thing, it wasn't," Twilight said with a faint smile. "It is just information so old that it slipped from history to legend, from legend to myth, and then even the myths were forgotten. Even the original members of the Council died millennia ago and were replaced. And the new ones were far more interested in keeping the engine running smoothly than in talking about where the train was going." She looked around. "I suspect more than a few didn't even know, or only knew something vague their mentors and predecessors had mentioned."

    Another delegate rose. "And... where ARE we going?" she asked somewhat fearfully.

    "To judge by the North Star, we are headed towards a cluster of stars just off the end of the Little Dipper," Twilight said, amused. "But at our current speed we won't arrive for at least another two hundred thousand years. Don't worry, you don't need to find your boarding passes just yet." There was some strained laughter at that. "Before you ask, I suspect they were hoping to place our planet in orbit around a younger, more stable star, so the planet's natural processes could resume under their own power again."

    "How fast are we going?" came a raspy yell from above.

    Twilight grimaced. "Rainbow, that--"

    "Come on, how fast??"

    Twilight rolled her eyes. "About 92,000 miles per hour, Dash," she said.

    "Holy horseapples!!!"

    Twilight had to bury her face in her notes as laughter boiled up from the audience.

    The Firebird spoke up while she and the crowd composed themselves. "This is enlightening knowledge," the bird sang. "But to bring things back down to earth, pardon the pun, how does this relate to Equestria's appeal?"

    "It relates," Twilight said, "Because it shows that punishing Equestria for the mishandling of the sun and moon would be irrelevant to the real problem," Twilight said.

    "Explain," the Firebird said.

    "Because these sort of calamities are both inherent and inevitable in the system," Twilight said. She shuffled her notes.

    "In the preModern times, the ancient pony lands were struck by an unseasonable blizzard, which was in fact an ice age-- brought on by an asynchronicity between the solar cycles, and the navigation provided by Iormungandr, due to what is only described as a factional schism among his aides and servants. The invasion of the Windigoes into pony territory is possibly one of the results.

    "In 1222, the rivers in Zebrabwe all ran backwards for a year, due to a mistake on the part of the masters of the currents and tides.

    "in 1045, a magnetic field inversion caused massive disruption to thaumaturgy throughout the world, throwing bird migration completely off course worldwide, and plunged many developing cities into darkness. To this day the birds in Equestrian territory have to be guided by Pegasi on their flight paths...." she continued on, listing hurricanes, tornadoes, tidal waves...

    Several Custodians were looking extremely embarrassed as she went on. Pele' chortled in amusem*nt. "Seems like she know a few oopsies, don't she?" she taunted her seatmates.

    Almost as if on cue, every Council member raised their voices in a single word, "KRAKATOA." Face flaming (literally), the queen of volcanoes grumbled and ducked her head down.

    "--- Which was caused not by conflict or malice, but simply by Zeng He and Pele getting their calendars crossed," Twilight finished. "My original intent was to evaluate these incidences, see what sort of penalties had been levied in the past, and appeal for something more appropriate to the circ*mstances."

    A delegate from the Western Kingdoms spoke up again. "That doesn't change the fact that Equestria IS responsible for the hurricanes, the penumbral storms, and the other damages--"

    "IS it?" Twilight shot back. "Tell me, sir, how many centuries has your kingdom lived square in the middle of hurricane territory?"

    The ruler huffed. "Our kingdom is over eight hundred years old--"

    "And in all that time you have had how many hurricanes per YEAR?"

    "Well the average is--"

    "And again, in all that time, you have never taken measures to protect yourselves from inclement weather?" Twilight thumped her hoof on the podium. "I took careful note, sir; most of the traumatic weather events you have blamed on the Nightmare Nyx event take place in your kingdoms on a regular basis anyway. You build your houses on shifting sand again and again, and are astonished when they fall down like all the ones that preceded them. We will take the blame for our own sins, but do not expect to use them to cover up your own." Some scattered applause actually greeted this. The delegate, red faced, sat down.

    "This, again, ignores the fact that no kingdom on this world, no matter how powerful and wealthy, could ever realistically repay such damages in mere bits. And it would not, as I said, solve the real problem.

    "Allow me to illustrate." The room darkened again and the screens lit up. A movie began running, of a dozen pony-drawn carriages, one behind the other, rolling in a circle in an open lot, as methodical as ponies on a carousel. "This was an experiment conducted twenty years ago by a group of researchers trying to explain the occurrence of traffic jams in the city of Manehattan. All the carriage ponies here are volunteers, expert taxicab ponies of some ten years experience. They have been instructed to pull their carriages in a circle, staying precisely one pony length behind each other, no more, no less. Now watch what happens as time progresses." The image fast forwarded; the smooth carousel ride had turned into herky-jerky bumper cars, with many stops and starts and gaps closing and opening between ponies. "As you can see, their efforts soon fall into the 'stop and start' traffic you see in most major cities. What this is, is the cumulation of tiny errors by each pony-- stopping a touch to soon, or too late-- till eventually the synchronization of the whole group is thrown off for good." The projection stopped, and the lights rose again.

    "This is what is plaguing our world. Despite all the ingenuity that went into the conversion of our world into its current form, the ancient architects had one major oversight. Or perhaps they simply were unable to complete the full design-- noone knows. Either way, none of the systems of our world are synchronized to each other. They are almost all hoof-controlled... with diligence, dedication and solemnity, but still hoof-controlled. And the errors keep accumulating.

    "I reviewed several hundred natural catastrophes. Some few were caused by negligence or malice, but the sweeping majority, nearly ninety percent, were caused by runaway error accumulation. Clerical errors, slips of the hoof, a missed decimal point, that rapidly spiraled into a calamity.

    "With this in mind, I am proposing a worldwide project. One that will be undertakenand led by Equestria, both as a means of compensating the nations of the world for the Nightmare Nyx incident, and which will fix this problem once and for all." She stepped back from the podium and took hold of a rope. "I present to you the Cosmic Synchronizer." The tarp fell away, revealing a machine the likes of which no being in the room had ever seen.

    It was an orrery, a model of Equestria's rather minimalist solar system, sun, moon and planet, etched out in copper and silver and gleaming brass.... But in incredible mechanized detail. The sun actually blazed with magical flame; the moon glowed with a nimbus of blue-white light. They orbited slowly on extended mechanical arms. The surface of the globe was covered with shifting plates, representing the moving continents. Illusory oceans rolled; arrows remarked the flow, rise and fall of the currents, and illusory clouds guided by undulating lines glided over it. One could look down through the intermeshing parts and see more arcane and mystifying mechanisms clicking and whirring and turning away deep inside. There was a small podium at the base, with a control panel covered with switches and dials. Twilight stepped onto the platform and patted the controls affectionately. "This is, of course, a quarter-scale proof-of-concept model...."

    "That thing is a model?" Zeng He burst out.

    "You should see her ship in a bottle collection!" came the shout from above.

    "Pinkie--!!"

    The crowd roared.

    Twilight facehoofed and waited for everyone to calm down. "As I was saying, a proof-of-concept." She sighed. "To demonstrate... Celestia, Luna? Would you please come down here?"

    The two princesses glided down and alighted next to Twilight. "Of course, Twilight," Celestia said. "What do you want us to do?"

    Twilight tapped her forehooves together sheepishly. "Well, with your permission, for just a moment, I'm going to... take over controlling the moon and sun." She tilted her head. "Wow, that sounds WAY more egomaniacal than it did in my head."

    The two princesses regarded her with wide eyes. "Well," Luna said. "This should be... interesting." She nodded. "Very well."

    "I agree as well," Celestia said. "What do you need us to do?"

    "Here, put on these peytrals," Twilight said, holding up two new chest-pieces. They were adorned with images of the sun and moon, like the ones Celestia and Luna wore already, but were somewhat thicker, and with larger amulets. Still looking curious, Celestia and Luna doffed the ones they had and donned the new. "Okay, good. Now the next step is for you to... well, reach out and touch the Sun and Moon. Like you do when you're about to move them..."

    Celestia nodded. "We are always in contact with them, but I think we know what you mean." Her horn lit up, and a moment later so did Luna's. Twilight scrutinized the control panel. "Aaaaand we have link! Okay, Princesses, you can rest now. You can take the peytrals off if you like." The two complied, their horns dimming. Twilight grinned at them. "And now... watch this." She turned a dial with her hoof.

    On the model, the Sun swung about from late midday to nearly sunset.... and outside it did the same. More than one being cried out in surprise or alarm. Celestia reared back slightly, eyes wide in surprise. "My word!" she exclaimed.

    "And now the Moon," Twilight said, fiddling with a few more dials. The moon rose, set, rose again, went from full to quarter and back again.

    Luna staggered, her eyes starting to cross. "Zounds, how peculiar!"

    "Okay okay, that's enough fooling around--" Twilight pulled a lever, and the sun and moon, inside and out, returned to their respective proper places.

    "That was... strange," Celestia said to her student. "And a little frightening."

    "Aye," Luna said. "Twas as if someone had hold of my foreleg, and was moving it about," she said.

    Twilight nodded. "But do you think you could have broken that grip, if you wanted?"

    Luna thought and then nodded. "Oh most certainly."

    Twilight nodded. "I figured as much." She addressed the audience. "Think of the Synchronizer as being something between a metronome and a focusing lens," she said. "Once it was attuned to Celestia and Luna's connection with the Sun and Moon, it could steer that connection to the desired result. Only with their voluntary cooperation, however; had they wished they could have overpowered the connection almost instantly. Princess, may I demonstrate?"

    "Yes," Celestia said. She sounded a touch perturbed. She seemed to relax a bit once Twilight tried to make the sun set again, and she resisted easily.

    "As Celestia's first conflict with Nightmare Moon showed, and my own subsequent calculations confirmed, their bonds with their respective celestial bodies is far too strong to be overwhelmed this way," she said. "Recall that it took Celestia and all six Elements simply to neutralize Nightmare Moon's control and imprison her in the Moon. But, so long as they don't actively resist, the Cosmic Synchronizer will guide the Sun and the Moon in their paths... with clockwork precision."

    Celestia sat down with a thump, all dignity gone. "You mean you've actually invented...?"

    Twilight giggled and bounced on her hooftips. "An alarm clock that raises the sun. Um, Happy birthday?"

    Celestia gaped... and then burst out laughing.

    "I appreciate the marvelous concept," Luna said, frowning in confusion at the enormous contraption before her. "But how doth this solve the whole of the problem?"

    "Because it's going to be part of a system," Twilight explained. "Each member of the Council will be given one of these Synchronizers, which will be harmonized to their personal affinity--- and to each other."

    "Keeping them in tune and in balance with each other," Celestia said, delighted.

    "Mein Gott, that is brilliant," someone in the audience proclaimed.

    Celestia, still planted on her bum, waved her forehooves at the machine. "How did you do all this in FIVE DAYS...?"

    Twilight blushed and dug a hooftip in the floor. "Um, five YEARS, actually, give or take a little," she said. "Remember how I did all the work in the Starswirl the Bearded wing...?"

    Celestia shook her head. "I really need to keep you away from that stallion's time spell research," she said.

    There was a loud, magically amplified throat clearing. "I make the motion," Triton said, "that the Synchronizer project be started, and deemed payment in full for any penalties incurred by Equestria in the Nightmare Nyx incident."

    "Seconded," Zheng He said. A show of hands, hooves, paws and claws was given; the vote was unanimous among the Council.

    The Western Kingdoms however weren't so thrilled. There was a lot of grumbling till Twilight cleared her throat. "I do think I should point out that the full-size models, all twenty four of them, will result in massive numbers of regional construction jobs, trades in metals, investments in infrastructure, and their ongoing maintenance will mean thousands of staffing jobs and boosts to industry wherever they are located..." which the Council members would pay out of their own nigh-endless wallets, she thought, but did not add. The vote rapidly tipped over in Equestria's favor.

    Cheers and whistles came down from a particular cloud. "Yeah, you go Twi, woohoo! Yay for Equestria! Bravo darling!" This set off a growing wave of applause. Twilight, blushing, basked in the accolades.(1) Ink Spot came down out of the stands and swept her up in a kiss. The whoops and cheers doubled.... save from a certain segment of Equestrian nobles, sitting in the front rows and looking like they'd all bitten down on an old lemon.

    It was in the midst of the rising applause that a commotion rose at the entryway. To everypony's astonishment, who should come trooping down the aisle but Prince Blueblood, accompanied by half a dozen guards and what looked like a good score of children of every species and age. He stopped at the front row, staring in fury at his own father. Before he could speak a word, a little piebald colt hopped up on Prince Blueblood's back, climbed up on his head and pointed a tiny accusing hoof at the Duke.

    "JOCK SHOOES!"

    Prince Blueblood looked up at him. "That's 'J'Accuse,' " he said.

    "Oh."

    The Firebird banged his gavel yet again. "What is the meaning of this?"

    Prince Blueblood swallowed, steeled his nerve and addressed the Princesses, who were still up on the dais with the Synchronizer. "I wish to charge my father, Duke Blueblood, with high treason to the Crown," he said.

    The room, once again, exploded. The Canterlot nobles rose to their feet, blustering and shouting. Duke Blueblood was in the fore, his mustached face red and swollen with rage... till he saw Nyx marching forward with a familiar briefcase balanced on her back. He went hollow eyed as a ghost and lunged for the filly-- but the guards blocked his way. As did his son. "Not today, Pater," Prince Blueblood said, steel in his voice, cold steel that his father had never heard before.

    "Those are serious charges, Prince Blueblood," Celestia said. She had gotten to her hooves and regained her composure. "What are their nature and what is your proof?"

    "Your Highnesses," the prince said. "I can present evidence that the Duke is responsible for several unsavory incidents of late... including the libelous scandal against your children and the children of our guests, and for fomenting strife with our trade partners in the Western Sea--- resulting in this," he waved a hoof around the room. " He swallowed. "I am in part guilty of participating in the former, at the least. But this is the least of it.

    "I discovered, due to the intervention of these foals, that my father has been collaborating with a circle of like-minded nobles to have you unseated from the throne-- and to attempt to use ancient magics to try and sever... or overwhelm... your control of the Sun and Moon."

    "You stupid little git--" Duke Blueblood seethed.

    "I can name the conspirators. Duke Wellwater, Duke Bellweather, Duke North Star, Baron Hash Brown, duch*ess Spring Flower..." As he named each, guards moved to block them from leaving their seats. The tumult grew, order was restored by the barest of threads.

    "Methinks," Princess Luna said, giving the jittery Prince Blueblood the gimlet eye, "that thou hast the floor..."

    "The plan was fairly obvious," Prince Blueblood sighed. "Agitate the Western Kingdoms with a whisper campaign among our trade partners, till the populace blamed Equestria for any and all calamities that arose during the Nightmare Nyx incident. Agitate them enough, and the legendary Council of Celestial Stewards would step in... and the citizens of Equestria would howl for you to be deposed. Whether it was the Council, the Assembly of Kings, or the Equestrian House of Lords brought about your downfall, the result would be the same. The nobles-- their nobles-- would put a unicorn king or queen on the throne to replace you."

    "See? I told you," Nyx hissed, pointing at the apoplectic Duke. "Sleazy mustache and everything--!"

    "What?" Luna said. "Are thy father and his cronies DAFT? Did they imagine they could strip us of our very bond to the Moon and Sun?"

    "They obviously thought they could," Prince Blueblood said. "Or thought they could figure it out. There was that Alicorn trap at the Palace of the Moon, after all... they apparently had something along those lines in mind..."

    Twilight shivered and pulled closer to Ink Spot as she realized that was the fate Duke Blueblood had intended for her too. Trapped forever in a magical lock-box... your own magic used to power your prison, and whatever other mad project your jailer dreamed up....

    "And what did they imagine would happen to Equestria after they were done?" Celestia asked, her voice tainted with disbelief. "Its alicorn protectors dethroned and stripped of their powers, a thousand angry nations camped at its doorstep, enemies abroad waiting for a sign of weakness..."

    Prince Blueblood swallowed again. "They had... a contingency plan," he said. "To maintain Equestria's place as a world superpower. They called it Golden Sunrise.

    "...It was a plan to turn the Sun and Moon into a superweapon."

    Gasps of shock filled the room. Prince Blueblood pushed Nyx forward; the little filly marched up to her mother and passed over the incriminating case. Twilight opened it and began shuffling through the papers, Ink Spot reading over her shoulder. "Dear Maker..." he said. "Is that what I think it is...?"

    Twilight nodded, her face sick with horror.

    "What is the nature of this 'superweapon?' " The Firebird said.

    Shakily, Twilight lowered the papers. "I can demonstrate," she said. "The Synchronizer has a 'test' mode.... to demonstrate hypothetical situations, run test scenarios...." she flipped a switch. Several lights on the control panel dimmed and the faint hum of power surrounding the device quieted to a whisper. She consulted the paper, entering settings on the Synchronizer to match the arcane formula. "It's based off the old magics the ancient unicorns used to move the Moon and Sun," she said. "But they've been adjusted to enable... a new function."

    She pressed the button labeled START.

    In slow, fluid motion, the model Sun and Moon changed courses. they approached each other... then looped back and passed each other again, looping about each other in a complex pattern that brought them painfully close. As the onlookers watched, the wreath of flames around the model Sun pulled loose and wound around the Moon like a strand of taffy, swirling back and forth between them--and then spiraling down to the surface of the planet, a pillar of fire. Magical flame splashed on the copper panel of a continent, sizzling. The audience watched, transfixed, as the illusory flame, focused far too fine to remain harmless, singed and blackened a hoof sized spot on the plate.

    "I set the target for a random location," Twilight said. She hit RESET and wiped her hooves on her coat as if they were dirty. "But that could be set to any city, or landmark, or ocean...." she shook her head. "It would require a special system of magical edifices-- far more powerful than the Synchronizer--- to brute-force the effect, and use it enough times it would eventually tear the Moon or the Sun to pieces. But yes, it would work." She shuddered violently; Ink Spot pulled her into a hug.

    Hundreds of eyes turned to Duke Blueblood and his collaborators. "You maniac," a nearby stallion said, staring at him with unutterable loathing.

    Duke Blueblood had gone beyond demented. He glared around him at the eyes, all the accusing eyes... "You fools!" he said, spittle flying from his lips. "Don't you see? We wouldn't even have needed to use it! The sheer power would have been enough to intimidate our enemies! We would have been great again! We would have been an empire again! Without these Princesses ruling over us, subjecting us to their every eccentric whim and insane fit, we would have been able to rule the world! Noone would have dared touch us!"

    Pele' was sitting near enough to lean down to him. She bent over till her enormous head was a scant foot from his own. "Oh, rule de worl', eh?" she said. Smoke curled from her sneering lips. "Joo tink mebbe we were all gon' sit on our tails and let you rule?"

    "Thou foal," Luna said scornfully. "Didst thou and thy fellow ninnyhammers never perceive that the Council of Stewards was assembled to halt this very thing? Throw us down, take our powers, make this dread weapon, imperil the world by threatening to tear asunder the Moon and Sun, and they would have united to smite thee to dust and ash!"

    "There was no glorious future for you, Duke Blueblood," Celestia said. She sounded almost pitying. "No glorious empire, no return to the golden age of unicorn rule which never existed anyway. No, all your ambitions and plans ended this exact same way: looking up and realizing, too late, that there were countless Powers in this world far greater than you."

    Duke Blueblood spun around, shaking and spasming, his eyes starting out of his head. He was surrounded, surrounded by mobs of creatures who could tear him asunder, who laughed in scorn at his powers, his ambitions, his connections, who could for all his malevolent ambition and cunning and precious noble blood could smite him down without raising an eyebrow---

    His mind folded. He collapsed to the floor, shaking and weeping, sucking on his hoof like a newborn foal.

    "Thus endeth the house of Blueblood," his son said dolefully, looking down on him.

    There was a bang at the doorway. In came marching two pegasi soldiers, wearing sour expressions and frogmarching a disheveled looking Gryphon between them. A third came behind, carrying a tattered skyboard. "Hey, Grandpop," Killdeer-Adder said, waving at the Emperor of Gryphons. "Hey guys-- so did we save the world?"

    The Gryphon Emperor just groaned and facepalmed.

    1)Time Turner, who had been hiding under the platform, celebrated by hyperventilating into a paper bag. He was good with clockwork, not so good with crowds.

    Chapter 25

    The next few days were... eventful.

    Twilight, being Twilight, had spent a good portion of her time in that accelerated time bubble writing out, and rewriting, and re-rewriting, the treaty-slash-trade-agreement for the Cosmic Synchronizer project.... before finally collapsing in despair. She was a scholar, a researcher, the Alicorn of Friendship and the blinking Bearer of the Element of Magic, but she was utterly, utterly hopeless at drafting laws. Her final draft, scribbled on a takeout order napkin, had been "We all build magic clocks and everybody's friends, yay." Celestia and Luna had taken pity on her and turned her exquisite thesis on the Synchronizers and the mangled mess of her Treaty and handed it over to a team of pony lawyers and legislators for, ahem, "fine tuning."

    She had been lauded, toasted, praised and feted. The nobility of Canterlot had promptly tried to ply her with an honorary dinner in celebration of her extraordinary accomplishment. Twilight had appeared, thanked them all profusely, showered praise on Time Turner and the rest of the staff that had helped her with the actual construction-- and then disappeared. Literally. She teleported right off the stage, leaving a slowly panicking Time Turner to absorb all the terrifying attention and hero worship being showered on them. It was a fortunate thing that Derpy and Dinky were there to help him through his multiple panic attacks.

    As for Twilight, she had teleported straight to the observatory, where Spike, Nyx and Ink Spot were already waiting. She had shut the windows, barred the doors, told Lightning Blitz and Sundiver nopony was to get past the front door, asked the Quartet to fix them all a quiet dinner by the fireplace... and had fallen on Nyx, Spike and Ink Spot like a drowning mare on a liferaft. "Oh Maker, I missed you all soooo much,"she said, doing her darnedest to cuddle with all three of them at the same time.

    Nyx hugged back but still giggled at her. "It's only been five days," she said. She was happy to snuggle into Twilight's side anyway.

    Ink Spot was the first to get it. "No it hasn't, Nyxy sticks," he said, pulling Twilight in close from the other side. "She used a time spell--- didn't you, honey." He looked Twilight in the eye, his face and voice sober. "While five days was going on out here..."

    "Five years was going by in there," Twilight finished for him.

    "I was there as much as I could be, but--- I was on the outside." Ink Spot's face was sober.

    "Oh." Nyx's eyes grew round as it sank in. "Oohhhhh...." she burrowed into Twilight's side. "That... that must have been awful."

    "I would... I would come out every now and then, to fetch things we needed or order another bulk delivery of fast food--" that had actually been convenient; so long as the burgers and hayfries had sat outside the timefield, they could sit there (from their perspective) for months at a time and still be piping hot and fresh as when they were ordered--- "And I would... step out and peek in on you all... to see how you were doing, to remind myself that... that I wasn't abandoning my fiancee--" she nuzzled Ink Spot--- "That I wasn't letting your childhoods slip away without me..." she nuzzled Spike and Nyx tenderly. "But I could only come out for such short times--- every 4.29 minutes I was outside the time bubble, I lost an entire day... " Her eyes grew wet. "It was so hard. SO hard, not, not letting on what I was doing--"

    Even Spike looked stricken."Geez, Twilight..." he said.

    Ink Spot looked his fiancee over, scanning her face. He could see the strain in her eyes; five years worth of desperate work on a top-secret project, five years of what had to be utterly grinding loneliness... He did the only thing he could think of, and kissed her on the forehead. "Hush," he said softly. "It's over now. We're here, and none of us are going anywhere."

    From his perch Peewee began singing softly; it took Twilight a moment to recognize it, but she realized that the melody was from the Firebird's song. Now there was a lonely creature, she thought. Then again, who knew? Perhaps there was another Firebird somewhere, sitting in their nest, patiently singing its welcome home....

    Spike suddenly chuckled. "Heh. You'd better brace yourself, Twilight," he said. "Sooner or later Pinkie Pie is going to figure out she owes you five birthday parties at once."

    Twilight giggled. "Oh yikes."

    Down in the castle kitchens there was a crash. Pinkie Pie stood transfixed over the dropped mixing bowl, whisk in hoof, her eyes glazed. "Party... sense... tingling....."

    The sun set, the moon rose and the stars came out. Up on the peak of Canterlot mountain, a rainbow-maned pegasus settled in for a landing. She spread out a picnic blanket on the bare stones and, after briefly consulting a compass, sat down facing North. With deliberate motions she donned a pair of flight goggles, a crash helmet, and a scarf, throwing its loose end over one shoulder to trail in the breeze.

    With an enormous grin on her face, she pointed her forehooves at the North Star.

    "Wwwwwooosssssshhhh...."

    Down in the abandoned meeting hall--- now permanently re-christened the Synchronicity Chamber--- a lone clock repair pony sat and regarded the humming, whirring, ticking contraption as it spun serenely through its cycles. He was still trying to decide if this was bad or good news for his job. He'd spent a lot of time thinking over what the flutterpony had said. a LOT of time.

    The Princesses power the clock now. But all the cosmic whatevers on the Council, including the princesses, SET the clock. But they're all synchronized to each other, and tied to the balance of the forces of nature... which were influenced by the cosmic whatevers on the Council....

    "That only raises more questions!" he shouted accusingly. The echoes of his voice rang in the empty chamber. Defeated, he hung his head and left, beelining for Donut Joe's and something drowning in sprinkles.

    When a pony has a clock, he knows what time it is. When he has two, he's never quite sure. Either way he's probably late for supper.

    Dawn, the first dawn of a new era, broke over Canterlot. And then proceeded to go about its business as if nothing had changed. Luna, however, was not so inobservant as the typical pony. Even without the gentle (and surprisingly soothing) ticking of the Cosmic Clock in the Alicorn Plane and the background of her mind, she would have known something was amiss.

    For one thing, Celestia had missed breakfast. For a living herald of the dawn to miss breakfast was unheard of. For a moment Luna pondered the approximate location of King Triton at the moment and speculated on something scandalous-- but inquiries revealed that the King of the Western Sea was out and about in Canterlot, doing of all things some shopping and other touristy things (it really had been far too long since his last visit.) Puzzled at this turn of events, Luna made her way to her sister's chambers... where the mystery was solved.

    Many times over the years, Celestia had half-lamented, half-jested that since bonding with the sun she had forgotten entirely what it felt like to sleep in late. (waking up, raising the sun and then dragging herself back to bed didn't count, in her mind. She never quite got back to sleep.) Now, with Twilight Sparkles' wonderful Clock (1)tending to the rising and setting of the Sun, for the first time the Sun Princess could indulge in that mysterious pastime. Luna found her stone dead asleep on her bed, lying on her back, hooves curled up, sunbeams dappling her belly as she slept. She had an absolutely blissful expression on her face. Every now and then a gentle snore rose from the royal snout.

    Luna stifled a giggle. Then she recalled how their mother had woken them when they were foals and had been naughty enough to sleep in late. An evil grin slowly spread across her face. She carefully tip-hoofed over to the bed. She leaned over Celestia's bare tummy, took in a huge, gleeful breath---

    Celestia's eyes snapped open. "Don't you dare," she said.

    Too late, she was committed! Luna lunged.

    BRAAAAAAAAAAPPPPPPPP!!!!!!

    "Yaaaaagggggh!"

    All four snowy hooves shot into the air as Luna proceeded to give her sister the Almighty Royal Belly Zerbert of her life.

    The next moment Luna could be seen fleeing Celestia's chambers, shrieking and giggling like a loon, with Celestia in hot pursuit.

    Golden beams of dawn fell through the high windows of the Palace of the Clouds, home of the ki-rin Emperor. The Emperor was at his morning repast. Po knelt before him, waiting for his master to speak.

    After several minutes, Zheng He set down his chopsticks (2) and regarded his servant. "You have gone to some length be before me this early, young Po," he said. "Speak."

    Eyes downcast, still seated on the floor, Po spoke, his mouth dry. "My Emperor," he said. "Your graciousness to me, to bring me along on this journey to this land of wonders, has been more than I can say. I have seen-- I have experienced such things!... And I know that I have repaid you poorly." The Emperor frowned. "You showed me favor and I brought embarrassment upon you. I had hoped to redeem myself by aiding the Princess Nyx in her efforts to save her kingdom and to unravel the fabric of lies cast upon us... but still I--" he swallowed, heartsick. "What deed must I do, to obtain your forgiveness?"

    "And why is it that you believe I look upon you with disfavor?" Zheng He said.

    Po looked up, surprised. "Master? Ever since the scandal... with that... newspaper... whenever I have walked into a room where you are, you have averted your eyes, refused to look at me-- turned and walked away..." to his alarm, Zheng He began shaking. It took him a moment to realize the Emperor was shaking with suppressed laughter.

    Zheng He paused to take a breath, and then Po heard something he never imagined in all his life.... Zheng He's booming laughter. "Oh, my boy," he said, gasping for breath and wiping a tear from his eye. "I was not angry with you for that. No..."

    "You... weren't?" Po was racked between disbelief and hope.

    "I am sorry, my boy. I did not turn away from you because I was angry. It was because I did not wish you to see me laughing!" His astonishingly deep chuckle rolled through the room again. "When that ridiculous pony newspaper came out... that look of utter, wide eyed horror on your innocent face, it--" he sagged to one side, clutching his ribs and choked, tears rolling down his cheeks. Po sat through it all, his face hot as a bowl of steamed rice. He never imagined one could feel so relieved and so mortified at the same time.

    Eventually the Emperor regained.. some of his composure. "Oh, Po, my servant... my student... my son." Po's ears flicked back in astonishment at the turn of phrase. Only a master's closest disciples were called in such a manner. "Life's foibles are many, and your stumblings, such as they were, were only innocence. That others tried to besmirch your honor-- out of callous apathy, no less-- is no reflection upon you, in my eyes." A golden hoof reached down and rested on Po's shoulder. "Only you can stain your own honor." He leaned forward. "And Po? another important lesson; forgiveness cannot be earned. Only given. And its only price is that you admit that you need it."

    Po was moved. "Th-thank you, Master," he said, lowering his head again.

    Zheng He sat back. "For now, young Po," he said. "The Princesses are hosting something of a, I believe they called it a 'breakfast banquet' for the, ah, 'Royal Brats.' " His eyes twinkled. "Should you not be attending?"

    "But what of my duties?"

    "Your duties will wait; they are going to change somewhat anyway," Zheng He said mysteriously. "Besides, would you not wish to share the good news with your friends?"

    "Good news?" Po said blankly. Wordlessly, Zheng He pointed down. Po looked at his own hooves; the light of the morning sun had crept across the floor as they had sat together and bathed his hooves in warm light. His hooves, once dull iron grey, gleamed gold. Po gasped in wonder.

    "It seems this is the one thousand and first day you have labored in service to me," Zheng He said as Po raised his hooves to his wondering eyes. "You have been diligent, your burden was light, yet you have focused upon your duties with a meditative intensity, and you did not neglect your own exercises in serenity in your few off hours, either. And, as you have been inside my Palace the entire time... self evidently your feet have not touched base earth...

    "In my lifetime I have seen not a few ki-rin ascend. But never one so young. I was already fond of you, my student--" he chuckled again. "But now I am truly impressed.

    "Oh, you have grown so much my boy! And our time here has truly made you bloom. You have striven for loyalty, you have persisted in honesty, you have shown kindness, you have lent your hoof to those in need of generosity-- and to judge by those pictures in the magazine," Zeng He grinned, eyes twinkling, "You have tasted much of laughter--- and in the face of tradition and habit and expectation, you chose to value Friendship above all else. This is but a first step in a great journey before you. You are no longer my servant. Now, my son, you are my first, and most treasured student."

    Po looked up at him, a boiling cauldron of emotion. "B-but... I walked on base earth! I was in the streets of Canterlot... and-- you said because it sits upon a mountain--"

    Zheng He shrugged. "So I was wrong. As the ponies say, 'sue me.' " He smiled. "Though this might be of some pragmatic value. Many of our people who seek ascendance may come here as tourists, for a thousand day sabbatical, perhaps? I think you have discovered an interesting tourist trade." He shrugged again. "Beats spending three years living on stilts.

    "But for now, I believe you have a banquet to attend, and friends to celebrate with?"

    Joyfully, Po got to his hooves, bowed profusely and turned to go. Zheng He cleared his throat. Po halted in his tracks. "Yes, Master?"

    Zheng He motioned him closer. "I recall seeing one picture of you in that article... stealing a kiss from a sea pony?"

    Po's face flamed. "I-it was a game... called 'spin the bottle'...?"

    Zheng He leaned closer and grinned. "And?"

    If the young ki-rin blushed any harder he would have passed out. But he smiled all the same. "Like sea salt candy," he confessed.

    Zheng He's deep laughter bubbled up again. "Go on, go on," he said, shooing the boy along. He watched, smiling, as the boy galloped off, only pausing at the door to summon his magic and tentatively weave his very first riding-cloud.

    "Be young," he sighed. "Even immortals only get to try it once."

    Killdeer-Adder strode down the hall towards the dining room. "Awww, yeah," Killdeer said. "Beautiful morning ain't it?"

    "Too true," Adder said. "After all that insanity yesterday it's good to be alive. Awesome sky-ride yesterday."

    "Heh, I had no idea that Canterlot had such gnarly wind currents around it. Whoa, I can smell Spike's waffles from here...."

    "So THERE you are."

    Killdeer-adder froze. Down the hallway towards him came his grandsire, the Emperor of the Gryphons and master of the jet streams. The majestic old bird strode with domineering confidence through the marble halls of the palace, snowy head held high, golden wings arcing, his tail-brother Cobra arched high over his back. His overwhelming presence almost made the mortal gryphon guards flanking him completely disappear. His majestic appearance was marred only by the sour expression he wore on his face. It had always seemed to be there, at least whenever Killdeer-Adder was around to see him, but it had become more pronounced every day they had been in Equestria.

    Emperor Eagle's expression had become especially sour since the previous day. He had come to the Council hoping to get Princess Celestia over a barrel and get a little payback for the loss of the Gryphon wars all those years ago. Instead he'd come out the other side without a single one-up on her, and thanks to the Council, was going to be 'leashed to a damnable Pony clockwork toy till the trump of doom,' in his own words.

    Killdeer-Adder was too young yet to control the winds, let alone the jet streams-- but feeling and reading them was fairly simple, and it was obvious even to Killdeer that guiding them was a complex and difficult job. And from what he'd learned, the Cosmic Clock was going to make Grandpa's job easier than ever.Killdeer-Adder thought Grampa was just being a grouch. But what else was new? "Hey Grampa," he said, lifting up his Neigh-bans to look at him.

    "I have been hunting all over for you," Emperor Eagle growled. Kind of disturbing coming from an apex predator. "What is this nonsense I hear about you asking for sanctuary with the pony Princesses?"

    "Not asking, got," Killdeer said. Both Eagle and Cobra looked shocked. Eagle's eyebrows nearly flew off the top of his head.

    "Celestia gave you political sanctuary??"

    "Actually," Adder said, tipping his head to the pony guards trailing after Killdeer, "It was Luna who granted us amnesty. As you can tell by our escorts." The thestral guards flexed their webbed wings and pawed a hoof or two, but said nothing.

    The elder gryphon actually digested this for a moment before getting that expression on his face: the weary, longsuffering, at-the-end-of-his-rope expression he always seemed to get when he was talking to Killdeer-Adder."What... what game is this you're playing?" he implored.

    "No game, Grandpa," Killdeer said. "We're emigrating. And we're getting political sanctuary from the Princesses to keep you from dragging us back."

    Emperor Eagle-Cobra sputtered, flailed, flared his wings and his eyebrows, before finally spitting it out; "You crack-shelled, scramble brained hatchling, WHY??"

    Killdeer's careless smile faded. He looked enormously sad. "You say stuff like that, and you gotta ask why?" His grandfather's beak snapped shut. "Layabout. Crackshell. Slacker. Sorry Good-For-Nothing. You got a dozen names for me, Grandpa, and none of them even sound like 'grandson.' " He snorted and shrugged. "You never really cared for me. Neither did Dad. He practically threw me away, threw me at you, and the only reason you drag me around is because you're the Emperor of the Winds and he's the mortal High King of the Clans, and you figure Icould be used to merge the two halves of the government under your claw." The old gryphon's eyes went wide with surprise at his surfer-dood grandson's astute analysis.

    "But I'm not what you wanted. I'm not smart enough, not clever enough, not 'noble' enough--" he made quote-marks in the air-- "like a proper High Gryphon is supposed to be. You were ready to make my and Adder's lives a complete Tartarus-pit because of some tabloid reporter embarrassing us--- not you, US--- in front of the ponies." He sighed. "And, well, Adder and I decided we weren't going to spend the rest of our freaking immortal lives living like that." He looked around at the palace around them, and Equestria by extension. "I took one look at how they got it here, and decided: this is better."

    "Too true by tenfold," Adder nodded.

    His grandfather gave him a look filled with derision. "And what persuaded you that your situation here would actually be better than what you have back home?"

    "Princess Nyx," Killdeer said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "She screwed up. I mean, really screwed up-- not just 'did something embarrassing in the newspapers' screwed up, but big time. But still the ponies still forgave her. The princesses forgave her. She got a second chance, just because she admitted she needed one and asked for it. A lot of ponies still are mad at her, and some hate her, even-- but most of them forgave her, just like they forgave Luna. And I said to myself, 'I want that.'

    "You? You still haven't forgiven that bard for what he said about you five hundred years ago." He tipped Eagle-Cobra a knowing look. Eagle blustered, his ruff standing out like a porcupine coat.

    "I suppose you think you're going to do dandy here," Cobra said, taking over for the sputtering Eagle. "Did you stop to reflect what you're going to bring down on the heads of your new friends? A Gryphon prince abdicating to the pony lands... you'll embroil them in an international incident the likes of which--"

    Adder blew a raspberry. "Over a princeling who's one of a dozen in line for the throne of the High King, and one of four for the seat of High Emperor?" He said. "You'd get more mileage over losing the king's butler to the ponies."

    "And plenty of gryphons will be glad to see me go," Killdeer said matter-of-factly. "Not every gryphon was thrilled with your plan to consolidate the royal power, Grandpop. I'd just be one less immortal from my Dad's bloodline for you to use."

    Cobra persisted. "You won't be a prince here. No more royal quarters--"

    "--full of royal breakables," Killdeer added.

    "No more royal allowance--"

    "--which you never let me spend anyways," Killdeer groused, deadpan.

    "No more servants to tend to you--"

    "--To spy on us, you mean." Killdeer and Adder both rolled their eyes. "Give it up, Grandpop. Life with you redefines the word 'gilded cage.' "

    "But what will you DO with yourself?" Eagle said, almost pleading.

    Killdeer grinned. "For now... we're one of Princess Luna's personal trainers."

    "Personal trainers?" Both Eagle and Cobra blurted out, surprised in spite of themselves.

    "Skysurfing," Killdeer said. "She caught some of my bodacious cloud-cutting last night and she's jonesing to try the sport herself. Sweet gig; ain't fancy shmancy like being a guest prince, but the staff quarters are plush, the salary's good and I get access to the castle facilities.

    "Including the royal kitchens," Adder said.

    "Beyond that... who knows. Maybe I'll take up training other ponies. Some of those guards said I pulled moves they didn't think were for real, and they wanna pick my brain to make the flying guard wings more effective. Maybe I'll go into business for myself, making sweet skiing and skysurfing gear. Maybe I'll just get a nine-to-fiver, or odd job. Or maybe I'll just move to the mountains and be a ski bum." His expression sobered. "But I know one thing that I'll never do. I'll never be the kind of prince you needed.

    "Come on, Grandpa!" he said, patting him on the shoulder comfortingly. "We both know I'd never be royal or noble or majestic enough to be a real king. The best I could be for you or for Griffonia was a sock puppet... and I really didn't feel like lying around, waiting to see if you can stick your mitt that far up my butt." Adder snorted; several of the guards did too.

    "What.. what will I say to your mother?" the Emperor of the Winds asked. The old gryphon's stern visage lost its edge; he looked, for the first time in Killdeer's memory, truly old.

    "Uh, 'hello' might be a start. You haven't spoken to her since that time she told you off for bullying me." The elder Gryphon actually cringed. "Grandpa...." Killdeer hesitated. "Grandpa, deep down inside I'm still that little fuzzy chick who thought the world of you. And I'd like to think that somewhere way deep down inside, some part of you still loves me too. But Adder and I, we can't live like this-- and we're doing this for ourselves. I just hope that little bit down inside you is happy for us."

    He dropped his claw from Eagle's shoulder and stepped away. "Look on the bright side, Gramps," he said, flipping his shades down over his eyes with a smile. "You've got twenty-five other grandkids; one of them's bound to please you. " He tossed off a wave and headed for the banquet hall.

    Nyx sat back, patting her tummy. This... was a good breakfast.

    And not just because of the massive overdose of waffles she'd snarfed down. Though that was awesome. Mom had even let them bring out a whole buffet of toppings--- whipped cream and sprinkles and chocolate syrup and candied fruit and a jillion other tooth rotting, absolutely-not-it's-bad-for-you stuff to put on their golden toasty breakfast treats.

    Everyone that was special to Nyx was there. The Cutie Mark Crusaders and their parents were all seated on one side; the Royal Brats (and even some of their parents) were seated on the other. The Bearers of the Elements of Harmony were all present too. Spike, Mom, Ink Spot, and she were there, all up at the head of the table, right next to the Princesses, who had joined them somewhat late. And it even looked like Nyx had gotten her wish; Sundiver, Lightning Blitz, and the Quartet all had seats at the table with the rest of them this time.

    The Ponyvilleans had been nervous at first, but soon had warmed up to the chatter and were surprisingly right at home amongst nobles, diplomats and royal children. That was Ponyville for you; even if they panicked easy, so much weird happened there every day that the natives couldn't stay bowled over for long.

    Spike of course was overseeing the waffle making; he was standing behind a row of waffle irons, an apron around his neck, chef's hat on his head and proud as punch. Who wouldn't be, with royalty from around the world begging for his batter recipe. The apron only barely covered the bandage wrapped around his middle. He'd apparently pulled something when he tried to speed-grow, and he had to go about with one of Zecora's herbal compresses taped to him... but he'd be fine.

    The waffles were disappearing at an amazing rate. The Princesses had joined in and were putting the rest of them to shame; Celestia was eating waffles triple-stacked with multiple toppings with every plate, and Luna was practically plowing face first into her plate. She had discovered whipped cream and gone hog wild; she looked like the aftermath of the Creature that Ate Cloudsdale.

    Mom was having an interesting time of it, too. Pinkie Pie had cornered her. There were now five miniature birthday cakes sitting in front of her, each with its own candle burning away. "Okay," Pinkie Pie beamed, sliding the first cake forward. "Now make a wish, blow out the candle and cut the cake, Twilight," she said. "I missed five-- FIVE!!-- of your birthdays, so you're gonna get five little Pinkie Pie miniparties to make up for it." She waved a pink hoof. "Go on!"

    Twilight blew out the candle and looked up. "Pinkie, really, it isn't necessary to---"

    Pinkie lunged forward till their noses were touching. "Cuuuuut the CAAAAAAAAAKE," she said, her eyes bugging out and nearly poking Twilight's.

    "Aheheheh." Twilight laughed nervously and, never taking her eyes off Pinkie Pie, cut herself a slice. She looked over at Ink Spot, who was silently laughing. "Help me," she said.

    "I'll help eat the cake but I'm afraid you're on your own after that," Ink Spot said, amused, as Pinkie Pie set up a miniature pinata over Twilight's plate.

    Time Turner was at the breakfast too, sitting between Dinky and Derpy and looking rather happily shell shocked. Twilight wasn't the only one who'd been afflicted by five year's separation. He'd gotten a look at the paycheck for his "one week job;" between the generous base salary, hazard pay, bonuses, and oh yes, five years' salary all in one go, it was quite a tidy sum. Derpy was deliriously happy and Dinky was over the moon; to celebrate, Time Turner had gone out and bought Derpy an engagement ring.

    And a new house.

    Killdeer was there, cutting quite an impression with the Ponyville foals. Currently he was doing an imitation of his great-aunt Goshawk-Garter at a lawn party; his high squawky voice as he pretended to sip tea had half the foals doubled over in stitches. Po was floating next to the table on a little cloud, happily showing his gleaming gold hooves and chattering about his new place as the Emperor's protege' to anypony who asked.

    Doubloon was acting fairly excited as well. It seemed that Triton's kingdom was going to be "entering more open and robust relations" with Equestria--- whatever that meant-- and Doubloon's father was consequently getting promoted to Ambassador to Equestria. It was kind of funny; she was so unhappy and homesick when she first got here, and now she couldn't stop talking about how her family would be moving into a new embassy here where all her new friends lived...

    Nyx was still wondering about what "more open and robust relations" meant when Triton came in and inadvertently answered the question by walking to the head of the table and giving Celestia a long, slow, lingering kiss.

    Everything. Stopped. Dead. You could hear a pin drop; in fact you could hear several forks, glasses and one unfortunate stack of plates hit the floor. After a moment their lips finally parted. "Hmmm, kiwi strawberry syrup," Triton said to Celestia with a grin. "Interesting." Celestia's cheeks glowed like a sunrise.

    Rarity shrieked like a steam whistle. In the next instant every being present began shouting, cheering, and, in the case of several of the females like Rarity, bouncing up and down and screaming with glee.

    Somehow the fashionista made herself heard over the hubbub. "I don't believe it! Oh oh oh oh, your Highness, your Majesty, how long? When? Where? How? And when shall we start preparing the wedding? Oh my STARS I will make you the most fabulous wedding gown---"

    "ACK!" Celestia exclaimed. "My DEAR Rarity, do we have your permission to have a second date first?" Rarity eeped and put her hooves to her mouth, tittering, chastened. Celestia looked up at Triton. "Please pardon her, I'm sure she's just over-excited..."

    She expected Triton to look shocked or embarrrassed. Triton did look shocked... but he also looked pleasantly intrigued. "Well..." he said in her ear. "I certainly wouldn't be so gauche as to say I'd object.... or so dishonest... so... perhaps?"

    Celestia's cheeks pinkened again. "Perhaps," she agreed with a smile. "No rush, after all..."

    Nyx giggled. Celestia had a special somepony! If they got married, where would they live? Canterlot or Atlantis? She wondered. This was certainly a day, no, a YEAR for surprises.

    "Goodness, I think I timed my entrance wrong!" someone said with a bubbling laugh. Nyx turned around; standing next to her was Songhili, a happy seal smile on his face.

    "Hi Songhili! You're a little late, but there's still plenty of... waffles? What's all this?" Nyx said. The selkie pup was dressed in flowing silk robes and a tiny coral coronet. He was accompanied by six selkie adults, wearing sashes decorated with seashells and looking very important. Two of them pulled out a seat, which Songhili promptly took.

    "Will there be anything else your Majesty?"

    "No, thank you Steward," Songhili said. "You are dismissed. Feel free to avail yourself of the waffle bar."

    Nyx mentally ran like greased lightning through the list of honorifics--- Highnesses and Graces and Lordships and Sirs and Dames--- the Quartet had hammered into her brain."Your Maj--- you're a PRINCE?" her jaw dropped.

    "King, actually," Songhili said. Nyx didn't know how it happened but her jaw dropped twice. "Yes, I am Songhili, the King of Formosa, Ruler of the Selkies and the youngest ruler ever crowned. Coroneted after my great great granduncle passed away," he said.

    Nyx's jaw shut. "All this time..?" she said after finding her voice.

    He looked apologetic. "Please forgive me. I had no idea how to break it to you. I feared it would change our friendship; you and your friends are the first to treat me like 'one of the group' since I was coroneted. Since my great great granduncle named me as his heir, really."

    Nyx propped up her elbow on the table, cheek on her hoof. "I never woulda guessed."

    An explosive gigglesnort came from across the table. Nyx looked up to see Sweetiebelle snickering at them. She caught Nyx's eye and threw one foreleg over her brow, pretending to swoon. "Alas, the sweet young maiden never suspected that he was the heir to the crown, not even after sharing his passionate embrace that night--" Nyx nailed her in the face with a spoonful of boysenberry sauce.

    Bubbling laughter escaped from Songhili. "Things here have often been strange and hard to understand... but I have never had more fun in my life!"

    Nyx turned away from Sweetiebelle, who was still giggling herself sick as she wiped her face with a napkin, and looked at King Songhili soberly. "I said that I would do whatever it would take to make things right with the Selkies, Songhili," she said. "And I meant it. I guess this just means I can ask you straight. What can I do?"

    "It is no debt with us," Songhili said, smiling. "As I said before, our island was little more than footpaths and grass huts. We are more at home in the sea." He frowned thoughtfully, nose scrunching up. "Though as for that..."

    "Yes?" Nyx leaned in.

    "I am sure you have noticed that, even when we walk upon proper legs, we are a bit--- waddly," Songhili said. Nyx hesitated, then nodded. "Which is why we put so little effort into our dry-land homes," Songhili continued. "Getting about is a bit tiresome."He held up a paw to his mouth conspiratorially. "I have been thinking; there is ONE thing from Equestria that might be of use to us if you could help us obtain it..."

    He whispered his request in her ear. Nyx giggled, then pulled a quill and a piece of parchment from her saddlebag and carefully wrote out the request. The paper was scrolled up, and passed from hoof to hoof to claw to flipper to hoof until it reached the head of the table. Celestia opened the scroll, read it, and burst out laughing. Luna read it and burst out laughing as well. "Well, sister?" Luna said. "I am agreeable to it, if thou art."

    "Very well," Celestia said, eyes twinkling mirthfully. "Proposal granted, King Songhili." Songhili bobbed his head in a bow, pleased.

    And thus it was that one year later, workers from Ponyville would begin laying out a street system of water slides across the tiny island of Formosa.

    After everyone, even the ever-ravenous Gossamer, had eaten their fill, Celestia rose to her hooves and tapped her water glass for attention. "In the spirit of friendship... and inevitable disclosure," she said in rueful amusem*nt, casting a look at King Triton, "I would like to take a few minutes and make some announcements-- which we shall be making to the House of Nobles later this same day. Still, it never hurts to practice." The crowd chuckled. She took a deep breath. "The first and the most obvious: yes, King Triton and I are courting." Polite but happy applause went up.(3) "This does mean that we will be opening up with more trade ties and other interactions... though as for that we would be doing those things anyway. Equestria and Atlantis are good allies who have been poor neighbors, falling out of touch for so many years." She looked back at Triton and smiled. "We won't be allowing that to happen again."

    "Secondly, thanks to the timely intervention of the Cutie Mark Crusaders-- " a thunderous cheer went up from the colts and fillies on one side of the table. "And the youngsters who have become known, affectionately, as the Royal Brats--" Cheers and whistles erupted from the other side. Celestia laughed. "Yes, indeed. Three cheers. Thanks to their, ahem, proactive measures..."

    "I'm looking that one up when I get home," Pipsqueak said suspiciously.

    "...An insidious conspiracy was unearthed among the house of Lords. One to unseat our lawful rule and replace it with a puppet tyrant of their own choice. One that would have imperiled our nation, our way of life, and even our world. The wretched ponies who collaborated on this dreadful and criminal plan have been identified, arrested and are now awaiting trial. They will be tried, judged, and if found guilty, stripped of their names and titles, and punished accordingly." Several ponies cringed. Equestria had abandoned the headsman's axe for any save the most depraved of crimes, but the punishments that could be brought down were grim enough.

    "All save for one, Duke Blueblood." Gasps of shock and protest went up. Celestia sighed and explained. "Due to his... dissipated lifestyle, the shock of his exposure and incrimination was too much for his system to bear. The doctors say that several blood vessels in his brain ruptured, reducing him to the mental state of a newborn foal." She looked pitying. "He will spend the rest of his life in a nursing home, being cared for as if he were an infant." Stunned silence greeted this. "At our discretion the Compassion of the Crown has been granted; no charges against his wife will be levied... as she will have the heft of the burden of his care from now on.

    "As to his son... Prince Blueblood, please stand." The stallion got to his feet. Nyx jumped in surprise; she hadn't even noticed him sitting there. "You are, by your own confession, complicit in some of the lesser shenanigans--" she co*cked an eyebrow-- "in which Duke Blueblood was involved. The penalties from them are rather lengthy." His ears drooped a bit and his lower lip wibbled. "However, because of the hold he had over you as your parent and scion, and because of your forthrightness in coming forward to expose his more insidious machinations, we will again extend leniency and dismiss most of the charges."

    "Most?" Blueblood said, dread in his voice.

    "Most." Celestia said firmly. "You are the last of your lineage, a descendant of Princess Platinum herself. However your willingness to be passively used for petty acts of malice by whomever held your pocketbook speaks poorly of you indeed." His head hung low. "And it must not be seen that ponies, regardless of their rank in the peerage, may go about causing malicious mischief against their fellow ponies and against the crown without consequence.

    "Therefore, my sister and I have agreed upon an appropriate punishment."

    Luna got to her hooves and looked at Blueblood with a stern expression on her face. "Prince Blueblood, it is our judgment that you shall be commissioned to the work of undoing thy father's mischief in Western Sea. You shall therefore be provided a vessel, crew, and staff, and be sent forth on an ambassadorial tour of the Kingdoms of the Western Sea to mend the relations between our nations. Only when you return-- successfully, with good report-- from a tour of all those nations, will you be regarded in good standing and your name cleared."

    Blueblood looked dumbfounded. "A... diplomatic voyage?" He said. "Of the Western Kingdoms?" Celestia and Luna nodded. "ALL of them?" To everypony's astonishment, instead of a pout or a whine or a look of dismay, an expression of utter joy spread across his face, like a foal on Hearthwarming Morning who expected only socks but instead found that train set he'd been coveting through a store window all winter. His eyes practically glowed. He bowed. "Your Highnesses-- I cannot thank you enough-- I-- I--Since I was a foal, poring over my father's trade maps, I only dreamed of--"

    More than one pony glanced at the Prince's cutie mark, a compass rose, and understood. The Princess of Dreams softened her expression and lowered her head next to Blueblood's. "...A tall tall ship, and a star to steer her by?" she quoted with a half smile. Blueblood started, then nodded, abashed.

    "I will do the best I can, your Highnesses. I..." Blueblood grimaced in a rare moment of self awareness. "But... what if I bodge it up? I... am the last pony anypony would pick for diplomacy..."

    "It's simple darling," Rarity drawled. "Remember how you treated me at the Grand Galloping Gala?" Prince Blueblood nodded, suspicious. "Just like that, only the exact opposite." He withered under her tart glare and the laughter at his expense.

    "That is part of the lesson, Prince Blueblood," Celestia said. "Learning to behave like a prince... whether with a prince or a peasant. But that said, good help goes a long way in covering up one's own flaws. Choose wisely before you go."

    "And bring presents," Triton advised, amused. "Diplomacy is a lot like courting, I have found, and flowers and candy never hurt." He gave Celestia's ear a teasing nip; she elbowed him.

    "I always heard it compared to saying 'nice doggy' while looking for a good-sized rock," Ink Spot muttered... a little too loudly.

    Twilight elbowed him a good bit harder than Celestia had Triton."Inky!"

    There was a petite gasp. "You'd better not be throwing rocks at any poor doggies," Fluttershy scolded, scandalized.

    "It's only an analogy--" Ink Spot protested manfully, to no avail. Fluttershy was off in a lecture-mode tizzy at the very idea, and the rest of the mane six were torn between trying to calm her down, teasing Ink Spot for his verbal slip, and egging her on...

    Twilight watched her friends and family, heart warm. Here they all were, the ponies that meant the world to her. More than the world... after her time in the five-year bubble, their importance to her had only grown. Having them here was like an oasis in a desert. She was NEVER going to let herself be separated from them like that again.

    Celestia finally rang her fork against her drinking glass again. "That set aside, there is one other matter that everypony present should be made aware of," she said. "Well, most of us-- and those that don't would hear of it in tomorrow's papers so no harm done. Anyway..."

    "As you may guess, the deposing of so many nobles has thrown the House of Lords in disarray. Nearly a full third of the House was entangled in this plot to some degree or other." There were some discomfited murmurs at that. "The balance of power has been... well, knocked right off its plot, frankly.

    "After much arguing, lamenting, squabbling and hair-tearing, the remaining House of Lords, and Luna and I, have come to the conclusion that there is only one solution to prevent endless years of infighting and power-grappling. To maintain the balance of powers, they are drafting a bill to have the authority vested in the House to be divided between the House of Lords... and the youngest of the Triarchy, Princess Twilight Sparkle."

    A minor tumult of astonishment greeted this news. "While new lords will be named over the lands that that deposed nobles have lost, it will be as minor landholders. Their powers, legal authority, and influence on the legislative process will be transferred to Princess Twilight in perpetuity...."

    She spoke on for several seconds. Twilight didn't hear her. She was lost in her own little world...

    It was okay. She was familiar with the territory, and she'd already stocked up enough provisions to work out her little fugue. Five years literally living in a bubble had given her a lot of time to contemplate. She metaphorically looked over her notes, her accumulated observations, checked her calculations on her mental blackboard and nodded in satisfaction at the results. Time to put the pure sciences into the applied.

    "... And we cannot say how proud we are of our Twilight for how far she has come," Celestia was saying. "But suffice it to say-- um, yes, Twilight?"

    At some point Twilight had risen from her seat. "Celestia, Luna... your Highnesses... I want to thank you for this, and for all that you've done," Twilight said serenely. "And I especially want to thank you for telling me this, because it gives me the opportunity to say this now."

    "I abdicate."

    1)Luna refused to call the thing by its full over-wrought name. It had gears, it was a Clock, and that was the end of it.

    2)Tricky to use, even with cloven hooves.

    3)And at least one "About time, strewth."

    Chapter 26

    "Twilight, you CAN'T abdicate."

    Celestia's voice was calm and patient, like a parent explaining something to a particularly stubborn child. It had stayed that way since the five of them-- Celestia, Luna, Twilight, and a stubbornly tagalong Nyx and Spike-- had retreated to the throne room to thrash this out.

    Twilight was having none of it. "Watch me."

    Luna shook her head. "Twilight, we have already explained to thee. Thy ascendance marked thee as a princess. All ponies of Equestria who ascend are, by default, Princesses of Equestria." She paused. "Or... Princes, but we haven't had one of those yet." Her brows tabled. "Much to my displeasure," she grumbled.

    "Well you can call me a Princess all you want," Twilight said. "But short of chaining me to the throne you can't make me serve. And even then I'll just sit there and make rude noises at the petitioners. I. Abdicate."

    Celestia sighed. "Tell me, Twilight-- why do you think I trained you? Why did I make you my personal protege'? What in Equestria did you imagine that I was testing you for, if not for this? I wanted you to become a Princess, I wanted you to become a ruler and a leader of Equestria. In retrospect, wasn't it obvious?"

    Twilight looked up at the Solar Princess, her expression mild. "But did you ever ask if that was what I wanted?"

    The throne room fell silent. Twilight repeated herself. "Well? Did you? Even once? Did you ever ask me if I wanted to become a princess or an alicorn?"

    The silence was telling. "No. You didn't," Twilight answered for her. "You sprang it on me. Just like you sprang my... ascendance on me. It was nothing I ever wanted. Nothing I ever even IMAGINED wanting. To be a Princess? To wield power over others? To be lifted above and away from my family and friends? I never wanted any of this, no sane pony ever would."

    "And you object to being ascended?"

    "Do I look stupid?" Twilight snorted. "A tenfold increase in magic, eternal youth and wings? I'd have to have the IQ of a turnip to turn all that down." She looked Celestia in the eye. "What I resent is... not being forewarned. Not being made a part of the decision. And I KNOW that there were like, a billion variables that you couldn't account for," she said, rolling her eyes. "I know that ascension is a crapshoot. Heck, I know that the other Bearers stand a good chance of ascending just by being on the periphery of the fallout--- and don't you think that I didn't let them know it once I figured it out!' she dropped her eyes unhappily. "But that doesn't change the fact that I feel left out of the decision."

    "Then why did you follow so eagerly in my hoofsteps, my faithful student?" Celestia asked. "Why did you become my pupil at all?"

    "Because I wanted to study from you! I wanted to learn from you! I wanted to study magic under the most powerful being in Equestria-- to learn things no other pony knew! I did it because I loved learning, I loved magic! Not because I wanted a throne!"

    "Is this not what you wanted?"

    "I was already DOING what I wanted!" Twilight Sparkle shouted, stamping her hoof angrily. "I was a scholar, I lived in a home filled with books, with my daughter and my son, in a town that welcomed me that was filled with friends who were dear to me and a stallion who loved me! Maybe it wasn't as glamorous as being a princess in Canterlot, but I could have lived my entire life happily as a librarian in Ponyville!"

    "Look at yourself, Twilight," Celestia said. "You are an alicorn now. You should be happy with this, should you not?"

    "Of course I should. Every little filly wants to be a princess, right?" Twilight snorted disdainfully, brow furrowed, refusing to turn around. "That's what everypony tells everypony else, without ever asking the little filly."

    The lone filly in the room snorted. "I never wanted to be a Princess," Nyx said. Then she looked sheepish. "Okay, I sorta had to learn the hard way..." she trailed off. "But I know a filly who wants to be a Princess---"

    "Diamond Tiara," Twilight and Nyx finished together. Despite the tension in the room, all the princesses present giggled.

    "It certainly doesn't reflect well on that particular ambition, does it," Celestia chuckled ruefully.

    "To covet being a princess is to desire to be pampered, to lord over others, to imagine oneself better than all others by default," Luna said ruefully.

    "The irony of it all: those least suited to be princesses desire it most." Celestia shook her head. "Twilight...There is no going back. From the moment that I saw you, saw your gifts, saw your cutie mark as the Element of Magic....I knew this was always your destiny. Anypony can see that."

    Twilight looked up. She actually laughed, a spark returning to her eyes. "You're wrong, Princess," she said. "You are completely wrong. You know why?

    "You know, when I miscast Starswirl's last spell, my friends thought that way too. That's why it caused no end of trouble:Because they thought their cutie mark told them what their destiny was.

    "But anypony who knows anything about cutie marks knows it doesn't work that way.

    "Applejack got her cutie mark when she realized she wanted to go home to Sweet Apple Acres. Fluttershy got hers when she decided she wanted to work with the animals. Rainbow Dash got hers, not because she made a Sonic Rainboom, but because she knew then and there that she wanted to be the fastest and greatest flier ever. Rarity's talent was in finding gems with her magic, but she got her mark when she looked at how dazzling and beautiful her costumes were and decided she wanted to do that with her life. Pinkie Pie got hers when she knew that making ponies smile with her parties was all she ever wanted.

    "Your cutie mark doesn't tell you what you're meant to be--- your cutie mark is decided by what you choose to be."

    Twilight closed her eyes; she seemed to be trying to hold herself together. "Princess, I spent five years... five YEARS... away from my friends, my family, my children.... working on the Synchronizer in a timebubble barely larger than a single wing of the Royal library. I have never been more lonely in my life. Every now and then, at times spaced months apart, I would get a few minutes to speak to Ink Spot, or to look in on my son and daughter. It wasn't enough. It was never enough."

    She laughed. "Do you know one day on the inside, Nyx went running past the windows of the library? For her it was just a few minutes playing in the sun, of course; for me she lingered in front of those windows, all but frozen in time, for almost a day. I didn't get any work done that day; I spent every chance I could get at the windows, just to catch another glimpse of her before she galloped out of sight. And then she was gone." She opened her haunted eyes.

    "I had five years to put everything into perspective. All the times I brushed Nyx aside because I was busy with 'important' Princess duties. Of the few bits and pieces of time I had to steal with my fiancee', even after our announced engagement, because the Crown kept pulling me away. About how I wasn't there when Spike went to his first training day or there to comfort him when he had his breakdown, how my children-- my CHILDREN!-- had to go out and save all our reputations because I was too busy up on a pedestal..."

    She wiped her wet eyes. "Nyx isn't going to be a little filly much longer. I'm going to blink and she's going to be all grown up. Spike too. And Ink Spot... " her voice caught. "Our time together is going to be so brief. I am not going to trade away those precious years, not one MINUTE of them, for a stupid crown! My life is what I choose. Whether it's in a palace or a dusty little library or a mud hut on a hill, I choose my life with them.

    "And I choose... to abdicate." She removed her tiara-- the Element of Magic-- and set it on the dais before the throne.

    Celestia watched her, her face enigmatic. "And who shall rule over your principality, then?"

    Twilight actually rolled her eyes. "Whoever's been doing the job before I sprouted wings! All that balance of power talk, how you can't trust the House of Lords with all that power? Well fine! Just-- just pick a bunch of commoners to take over all that authority you were going to give me! Better yet, let the common ponies pick the ones to take it. That way nobody can complain! We are LONG overdue to abandon the notion that certain ponies should rule because they are 'just better' than everypony else. It's wrong to rule over others without their conscious consent."

    Her determination spent, Twilight hung her head. "So... I abdicate. And if you want to take away my Element and my alicorn-ness and everything, go ahead and do it, your Highness. Because either way, I'm taking my daughter Nyx and my son Spike and I'm going home."

    Celestia sat down, rolled her eyes and blew a raspberry. "Twilight," she said with a faint smile. "I assure you I shall not be stripping you of your element or your 'alicorn-ness.' I could no more take those away than I could take away your cutie mark. You are a Bearer, that is a thing you alone deserve. And you were an alicorn innate before you were born.

    "But something far more important has taken place here, my dear Twilight Sparkle," Celestia said. She got to her feet and stepped down from the dais to give the startled Twilight a neck hug. "Thou hast found the courage within thee," she said, slipping into old Equiish, "to finally look upon me and say NO. Thou art truly grown up, now."

    She stepped back. "However, you cannot, in truth, abdicate." Twilight frowned and opened her mouth to speak, but Celestia silenced her with a raised hoof. "It is out of my hooves, Twilight, truthfully. The law of the land states that the title of Prince or Princess is given to all alicorns, and is irrevocable. I can, however, do something else to grant you your freedom."

    Her horn glowed, and a large, blank scroll appeared in midair between them. Ink began to appear on the parchment as she spoke. "I present to all of Equestria this decree," Celestia said. "That Princess Twilight Sparkle-- and all those of like alicorn blood in Equestria," she added, nodding to Nyx in the front row, "Shall retain the rank and status of their royal title, and the recognition pertaining therein, but that the royal authority, power, and duties assigned to her shall henceforth be transferred... save for the few minor privileges, officialdoms and ceremonial duties detailed within..." She leaned over to Twilight. "Do you still have that checklist of ceremonial duties?" she whispered.

    Twilight smiled, embarrassed. "I was terrified to go anywhere without it," she said, pulling it out from under her wing. Celestia took it and hastily copied over several lines of it.

    "But what about the important duty stuff?" Nyx said. "The, the Noble House stuff you were going to give her..."

    Luna and Celestia glanced at each other and smiled. "An interesting idea our Twilight offers," Luna said. "A portion of the power of the Lords, going to a House of Commoners..."

    "Yes, quite interesting," Celestia nodding, pursing her lips-- clearly trying not to laugh. "And as Twilight currently has the authority to draft such an amendment..."

    Twilight's eyes went wide as she realized what they were saying. "I do have that authority now, don't I? AHaha!" Parchment was fetched, and a hastily scribbled amendment was sketched out by Twilight Sparkle.... Then edited by Luna, then re-edited by Celestia (Twilight really was terrible at drafting bills) before being added.

    "I believe we have a majority present to accept this document," Celestia said."All in favor?" Four hooves went up. "All Opposed?" Not a hoof went up. "So hereby it is sealed." Celestia produced an ink pad, pressed her hoof to it, and then to the bottom of the parchment. Luna followed suit. "Twilight? If you would?" She turned the paper around to face Twilight. Twilight inked her hoof, bit her lip nervously-- her very first, and very last, sealing of an official document, after all-- and pressed her hoof to the scroll.

    "And now you, Nyx."

    "Me?"

    "It has to be signed and sealed by all the Princesses of Equestria," Celestia said. "And that includes you."

    Nyx blinked in surprise. She hopped down from her seat, went over to dip her hoof on the ink pad, and then pressed her hoof to the bottom of the scroll.

    ***

    Celestia and Luna were lounging about in Celestia's room later that night, teaching Nyx and Spike the finer points of Pinochle. A moment later the door flew open, and Princess Twilight entered. She stood in the doorway, staring half in fury, half in bafflement at her mentor.

    "Twilight!" Celestia said. "I see you're back. Did you find the soda and chips?"

    "You bucking did it to me again," Twilight said.

    "Did what?" Celestia asked innocently. "...Oh. That."

    "What'd she do?" Nyx asked, puzzled.

    Twilight didn't look at her daughter. She never took her eyes off Celestia. "I went off to the kitchen to get some sodas and chips," she said unnecessarily. "I don't know why it didn't occur to me to send a servant to fetch them... but while I'm rifling through the cupboards looking for cheese dip, I overhear two of the members of the House of Lords, who apparently dropped in for a late night sandwich, discussing that little "bill of emancipation" we all just signed.

    "What, we aren't rulers again or nothing, are we?" Nyx asked fearfully.

    "No, that's not the problem," Twilight said. "It seems there were some little loopholes in that bill that Princess Celestia forgot to mention. It seems it wasn't just MY royal duties and obligations that got shifted over."

    "What?" Spike said.

    "Yeah, it seems that the wording of the thing is a little broad," Twilight said. "The royal powers that I had were Celestia and Luna's, too! Legislative, judicial, executive...all the changes they made apply to ALL Equestrian Princesses, not just me. Other than some limited oversight powers already reserved to themselves personally ages ago, they've made themselves into little more than ceremonial figureheads! Mayor Mare has more real power than them now!"

    Spike sputtered in shock. "Wha wha what? But why??"

    "It's very simple, Spike," Celestia said. "Equestria is capable of governing itself. It has been, for centuries. Yet ponies have resisted us setting aside our power, again for centuries."

    Spike scratched his head. "Wait a minute, the ponies in the House of Lords were refusing to let you give them more power? That makes no sense."

    "It does when you consider two things," Celestia said. "First, the Lords with royal lineages like Prince Blueblood's family resisted it because they had ambitions, vague dreams of putting one of their own upon the throne for ages. To disperse the power of the crown would have diminished their coveted prize; They wanted power but did not wish to share it. Silly things. They spend generations trying to manipulate and control me to their own ends, and they imagine that the same would not happen to them, should they gain the throne?

    "Others are, still sadly, elitists and supremacists.Make no mistake," she said with a frown, "There are many who give lip service to the equality of the pony races in the public, yet behind closed doors consider the others unworthy or 'lesser.' As if magic or flight or strength made one a better or wiser ruler! They accept our rule not because we are better or wiser or have thousands of years of knowledge and experience, but because we have one more set of appendages than them," she fluttered her wing and waggled her horn sarcastically for emphasis.

    "And still others are simply traditionalists. They feared the notion of Equestria-- of 'mere' common ponies--- ruling themselves without a single, all-powerful King or Queen. It took generations simply to give the House of Nobles the little authority it had; they were frightened of the idea of ruling themselves. And Twilight's House of Commons? Unthinkable!"

    "But after countless centuries, and bound by so many laws and traditions decreeing that we, and only we, could rule, I had to... sneak up on them with their own independence." She shrugged. "They would never accept the idea of my sister or I relinquishing power after thousands of years of rule. So I had to present them with something new. Somepony who had all the traditional marks of power they had enshrined... Unicorn birth, wielder of one of the Elements, ascendance to alicornhood... but who was controversial enough---"

    "Controversial enough that they'd actually WANT her to abdicate," Twilight said, cynicism and understanding blooming. "Like, oh, a unicorn commoner with no social skills and no courtly manners and NO experience with royal authority--- or at least not umpty thousand years of it... one who'd embarrassed the nobility and had a bunch of 'hooligan friends,' one who'd trashed the Grand Galloping Gala, one who'd adopted Nightmare Moon as her daughter... little things like that?"

    "Precisely." Celestia seemed to grow apologetic. "Please, dear pupil, do not take this wrong. I believe in time you would have been a great and beloved ruler, the same as my sister and I. You are certainly more qualified than the vast host of Lords that dreamed of wearing the crown!" she snorted. She gave a wry half-smile. "As much as I love my little ponies, they cannot remain foals, clinging to their mother's tail, forever. You are new enough that ponies can remember a time before you took your throne, so they could still imagine life going on without you sitting there. This whole shadow puppet play was, in the end, to secure your freedom. And theirs."

    "And ours," Luna interjected. "And Nyx's as well. As my little counterpart learned, for all the perks, quite frequently being a ruler... well..."

    "It bites wind," Nyx said emphatically.

    Every Princess present exploded into snickers. Spike was less reserved, falling backwards laughing.

    "This is our destiny. Not to rule, but to lead. And as you said, my student, it is one we have chosen."

    "Does this mean we get to move back to the library?" Nyx said hopefully.

    "If you so wish--" Celestia said.

    "YES," came the response.

    Spike kind of sighed. "Yeah, it'll be good to go home," he said. He looked around. "Hope you don't blame me if I kinda miss some of the amenities here, though..."

    "Well, Spike, even though our titles are largely ceremonial, you'll all still have a royal stipend," Celestia said. "And a few of the appropriate amenities for a royal family. A few servants, a little expansion on the library house tree, odds and ends like that. Wouldn't look good on the tourist brochures for and Equestrian Princess to be living rustic, now would it?"

    Spike gave a thumbs up. "Sweet."

    Nyx looked delighted. "You mean Cherry Blossom and the others will come with us?"

    Celestia nuzzled her, smiling. "Lightning Blitz and Sundiver too, if they all wish," she said.

    "Yay!" Nyx paused. "Gosh, we're gonna need an extra bathroom." She thought it over some more and recalled Sea Foam. "And maybe an aquarium..."

    Chapter 27

    Two months later they had the wedding, right in the Canterlot throne room. Hardly surprising; since the installation of the second Crystal Heart over the thrones, it had become the most popular spot for weddings in Equestria. Reserving it cost a fortune and had a waiting list a mile long. Of course, when the marriage was for a princess of Equestria, getting moved up the list was fairly easy.

    Everyone-- and we do mean everyone, not merely everypony-- was there. ... even Twilight's coronation hadn't matched this crowd. If one looked outside there were mobs of civilians out in the street, ponies with cameras trying to catch a photo, fillies swooning at the romance of it all and hopeful stallions waiting to catch them when they swooned. Inside, the Royal Brats were there in force, as were the Crusaders, family of the bride, family of the groom, the entire (remaining) royalty of the House of Lords, the interim House of Commons. Soft Soap was in the back row, jockeying for position with Roller Reel, both of them dead set on getting the best camera angle and not willing to give an inch to their symbolic rival. The Builders and Busters, Spike and Bright Eye's combat support team, were standing honor guard, Spike and Bright Eyes leading the columns in their uniforms, Peewee perched on Spike's epaulet and all three proud enough to bust buttons. The Quartet were going through hankies like there was no tomorrow-- and having to share a box of tissues with Sundiver, much to Lightning Blitz's disgust. Several of the Kings of the Western Sea and members of the Council of Stewards were there as well, Pele' being the most visible by sheer default. Even Discord was there, on his best behavior and a VERY short leash. And of course Nyx was right in the front row, fidgeting with excitement next to King Triton, Princess Celestia and Princess Luna.

    The Princesses would not be officiating. The Firebird insisted.

    The groom was at the altar, sweating like a nervous wreck. The bride, after five panic attacks, three bouts of the hiccups, six glasses of water, and a good dozen breathing exercises, had appeared at the end of the aisle, radiant enough to outshine the Firebird itself.

    Sweetiebelle and a young colt in a tuxedo and, oddly enough, a propeller beanie, began to sing a duet.(1)

    All those days watching from the windows

    All those years outside looking in

    All that time never even knowing

    Just how blind I've been....

    There wasn't an unsmiling face or a dry eye in the house as Twilight strode down the aisle next to her father. She reached the foot of the dais just as the song ended.

    ...And it's warm and real and bright

    And the world has somehow shifted

    All at once, everything is different

    Now that I see you...

    The delivery was slightly spoiled by the colt frog-punching Sweetiebelle in the arm and snatching back his Joyboy from her clutches the instant the song ended... but nopony was looking that way, so nopony noticed.

    The Firebird spread its wings. "Fellow beings, we are gathered here today, in the sight of the Maker of All Things, to join together this mare and this stallion in the bonds of matrimony..."

    Twilight looked into Ink Spots eyes, and her own blurred a little. This was a joyous time, the most wonderful day of her life! The beginning of a beautiful lifetime together with the stallion she loved.... as brief as that lifetime might be. No, she told herself. She would not think like that. Even immortals don't know what the future brings. All any of us have from the Maker is today. And if I only get one brief little lifetime with Ink Spot, I'll treasure every second of it.

    "You may now exchange the rings," the Firebird said, startling her out of her thoughts.

    "Oh! yes..." blushing, she and Ink Spot slid two simple gold bands over each other's horns.

    "What has been joined together before the Maker, let no power in heaven or earth dare put asunder," the Firebird sang. "Let their vows be said, and remembered by all present till the end of time."

    Twilight and Ink Spot beamed at each other. They touched horns and began reciting the vows they had written. It was a revision of something Twilight had read before; she had removed the dynamic invocatives from it, so it was nothing more than a poem. But she thought it suited the situation perfectly.

    "From one to another, another to one. A mark of our destinies, now brought together, fulfilled..."

    In the front row, Celestia and Luna's faces became suffused with alarm. They shot looks at the bridesmaids, who were all wearing their elements of Harmony... then at the Element of Magic sitting on Twilight's own brow... then at the Crystal Heart hovering just over the head of the giant freaking rainbow-glowing magic bird as the bride and groom recited a garbled version of an ancient spell right in the middle of the largest accumulation of nigh-cosmic entities since Discord's fifth birthday. "She wouldn't," Celestia said.

    "She is," Luna confirmed.

    Nyx was not oblivious. "What's wrong?" she said, alarmed.

    Celestia calculated all their options at lightning speed-- and concluded there weren't enough. She handed Nyx a pair of Neigh-Bans and donned a pair herself. "Just put your sunglasses on, dear," she said.

    Triton observed their antics and frowned. "What---"

    FOOM.

    Without warning, the Elements, the Crystal Heart, the Firebird, and the horns of the groom and bride flared with light. Shouts, cries, and squawks of panic went up. When the blazing light flooding the throne room died, Luna whipped off her sunglasses and did a rapid head count of the Bearers. All were present. "Nuts," she swore. "All accounted for, Tia. I would have thought this--"

    "Then who--?" It was just then that several shouted exclamations brought to her attention that the groom was missing.

    "Ink Spot?" Twilight exclaimed. She got to her feet from where she had tumbled and ran to the scorch mark where her groom had been standing. "Ink Spot!"

    Before she could go into a horrified panic, a ball of light appeared at the peak of the vaulted ceiling. It slowly descended, taking the form of a disheveled looking stallion. "INK SPOT!" Twilight said, flinging herself at him and grappling him in a frightened hug. Startled, Ink Spot stumbled. There was a ripping noise as his tuxedo jacket gave way and he spread his wings.

    Both their eyes went round as saucers. The gasp from the audience nearly emptied the air out of the room.

    The Firebird didn't even turn a feather. "I now pronounce you husband and wife," the shining bird said blithely. "You may kiss the bride, Prince Ink Spot."

    After weeks of near-Pavlovian conditioning, Ink Spot complied. The bride enthusiastically returned it.

    Nyx wasn't the first to leave her seat, but she was the first to voice her opinion of the matter as she pronked in a circle around her mother and father:

    "YESyesyesyesyesyesYES!"

    1)Sweetie had overheard him singing songs from 'the Melodica of History,' and we shant say how she persuaded him to sing for the wedding, but his agreement resolved a hostage crisis involving his JoyBoy and a blender.

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