Her Illustrious Highness
By Macon Mixx
Being the youngest member of the youngest branch of the royal family came with all of the burdens of royalty… without any of the advantages. Star Swirl's modest stipend as a retainer of the court never lasted the month, and she didn't have any lands or holdings from which to draw funds. As a courtier of the Princess of the Sun, she wasn't permitted to work, and even if she were, she wouldn't have known what to do. She wasn't a unicorn, and so she couldn't wield magic. She wasn't a pegasus, and so she couldn't fly. She was an earth pony, but she simply didn't have the size or strength for manual labor. Besides, as one of the only earth ponies in a court full of unicorns, her standing was so tenuous that she risked being ostracized for as little as talking with the common ponies. She would be a complete outcast if she actually worked alongside them.
Star Swirl had her cutie mark, of course, but that was the worst part of it. She had a cutie mark, but no special talent. That's how it was for all of the royals. The astral symbols emblazoned on their flanks indicated that they were descended from the god-queens of the day and night, but nothing more. After so many generations, no one even knew which princess the royals were descended from. Many had asked, but Celestia wasn't telling. Swirl, though, had always believed that she was descended from Luna. Perhaps now that the Princess of the Moon had returned from her exile, the youngest member of Celestia's court would finally get some answers.
"Too pink… Too kitsch… Too party…" Swirl mumbled to herself as she browsed the rack of dresses. In truth, Purple Streamer's Party Dress Emporium wasn't really the place to shop for formal attire, but all that was left of her monthly allowance was 27 bits. To find something for that price, she was going to have to stick to the clearance racks, even here at the least expensive dress and saddle shop in Canterlot.
"Well, if it ain't my best customer, Her Royal Highness Star Swirl of Equestria! To what do I owe this here honor? They havin' another shindig at the palace?"
Star Swirl spun around to see Purple Streamer, a lavender earth pony with a seven-toned mane and an almost impossibly large grin. Despite the scare that Streamer had given her, Swirl found that the party pony's infectious smile was spreading to her face, too.
"Aw, Streamer! You shouldn't sneak up on a pony like that!" Swirl giggled as she lightly rebuked her friend. "And please don't style me as royalty! It's so embarrassing when ponies do that!"
"Well, you are the only royal I've ever had visit my shop. And what's royalty doin' browsing the clearance rack, anyways? You just come with me."
At that, Star Swirl was on her back and being drug by the tail to the other side of the store. Surprised by Streamer's sudden, albeit playful, attack, she had no chance to resist. When the two reached their destination, Swirl stood back up and dusted herself off before looking up to see a dress more beautiful than anything she had ever imagined.
"What do ya think, sugarcube?"
Swirl stared in awe at the creation. Blues, pinks, and purples, all in perfect coordination with her own coat and mane, danced and around each other like fillies around a maypole. The effect was something like stained glass, or modern art, or the night sky.
She struggled to find the words to describe her feelings.
"It's… It's… It's… wow."
The salesmare blushed. "Aww, shucks. I thought you'd like it. I had it special made just for you by an up-and-comin' designer out of Ponyville. Real sweet mare by the name a' Rarity. Cost a small fortune, even at wholesale, but nothin's too good for royalty, right?"
At the word "cost", Star Swirl's trance was broken. She looked sadly from the dress to her friend.
"The dress really is amazing Streamer, but there's no way I can afford it. Until I get next month's stipend, I'm down to my last twenty seven bits! And from the way you've described it, I'm not sure even a whole month's stipend would be enough to buy something this nice."
Streamer's impossibly wide grin returned. Swirl wondered what in Equestria she could be so happy about.
"Now don't you go worryin' yourself about the bits. This dress is already paid for. I took it out of my advertisin' budget. I just need a little help from you in return. I hired Photo Shoppe from down the road to work up these flyers. Just need a picture of you in that lovely dress and we're set!"
Swirl glanced at the mock-up flyers that Streamer was holding out to her. PURPLE STREAMER'S PARTY DRESS EMPORIUM: The Dress & Saddle Shop of Choice for Her Royal Highness, Star Swirl of Equestria!
Swirl felt herself beginning to swoon.
From Star Swirl's mortified expression, it was clear to Purple Streamer that Swirl was going to turn down her offer. She almost began to panic. Should she have told Swirl about her idea before she sunk so much money into it? She already had the designs, the billboards, the dress.... That dress had cost her almost a thousand bits! She'd sunk nearly every remaining bit into this last-ditch effort to save her store, but if Star Swirl said "no," she would be in worse straits than ever!
Fortunately, Streamer caught herself just before going into all-out panic mode.
This mare is your friend, Streamer thought to herself. Just tell her the truth. Friends help friends, right? She'll want to do everything she can to help a friend in need.
With that, Purple Streamer swallowed hard and prepared to be more honest with Swirl than she had been with any other pony in a decade.
"... and so, with all of that happenin' at once, I'm mighty close to losing my store. It was a mite harebrained of me to get so far along on this plan without asking you about it, but I'm here now, and so I'm going to ask you one more time. This bit of advertising may be my last chance to save the Emporium. Even if you wouldn't do it for the dress, could you do it for me, sugarcube, as a friend?"
When she had first seen the advertisements, all of the blood had rushed away from Star Swirl's head and down to her hooves. Slowly, some small part of it was returning, allowing her to think clearly again for the first time in the ten minutes since she had seen them.
As she recovered from the shock, the first voice that spoke up in her reawakening consciousness was one of doubt.
Friend? Is she really your friend? You’re just someone she wants something from. Don't you get used enough as a pawn at court? Or do you have to let yourself be used by this common pony, too?
As a little more of her consciousness returned, a second voice made itself known.
She's our friend! She's our friend! Woohoo! We've got a friend! No time for all those snooty-fruity royal court ponies… We've got a friend!
With her composure mostly returned to her, Swirl decided that the first voice was wrong and the second voice was right. With how much of her time was eaten up by the cold, heartless frivolity of the court, she never really had a chance to make good friends. In fact, this salesmare, who she really knew only casually, might be her best friend in the world. It was time to further that friendship.
"Well… friends help friends, right?" Swirl smiled weakly at Streamer, who herself was nearly in tears.
Streamer's usual, impossibly large grin returned as she wrapped Swirl in a hug. "Oh, thank you! Thanks so much! Ya' don't know what all this means to me!"
When she had escaped her friend's embrace and was once again able to draw breath, Swirl asked her friend the only thing left to ask.
"When is the photo session?"
On arriving at Photo Shoppe's studio later that day, Star Swirl had taken on an air of command and confidence. She was faking the confidence, really, but she knew she had to do it if this were to go over well. It was embarrassing enough that her face was going to be plastered all over Canterlot. She was at least going to make sure that they got her style right!
"Nonononono! It's 'Her Illustrious Highness', not 'Her Royal Highness'. I'm six generations removed from the last member of my family who carried the style HRH! And there's no 'of Equestria'. Only Celestia and Luna get that!"
Photo Shoppe just rolled his eyes. He was used to being corrected by the divas he worked with. But Purple Streamer looked genuinely surprised.
"You mean to tell me that all this time I've been callin' you 'Your Royal Highness' I've been sayin' it wrong? Why didn't you correct me years ago?"
Swirl blushed, momentarily dropping her façade of poise and control. "I really didn't want you to style me at all. I was afraid if I corrected you, I'd only encourage it."
"Well, if that don't beat all. Then again, I suppose that 'Illustrious Highness' really does sound better than 'Royal Highness' anyway! Everypony already knows you folks is royal. The title tell's 'em you're illustrious, too!"
"It's not really something to brag about, Streamer. 'Her Illustrious Highness' is the lowest style in the court. It's so low, it doesn't even the get initials HIH. That was taken by a style higher up."
"All that court mumbo-jumbo doesn't mean nothin' to us common ponies. 'Illustrious', 'Royal', whatever. It all sounds the same to me, and it will all sound the same to the pony on the street, too. You just wait and see. You and that dress are going to save the Emporium!"