- - -
- - -
The coiling streaks of rainbow and sulfurous yellow tightened and turned, beating whipping belts in the skies over Ponyville before crashing apart with a crack like thunder. The normal pale blue overhead was scratched and marked by the tell-tale antics of high flying pegasi, but to even the most causal earth pony observer there was something different about this high speed dance in the afternoon sky. Most pegasus races, the result of hot heads and swollen egos, didn't involve all the sound and fury of a storm juxtaposed with none of the rain.
The blue streak sputtered, the trail of light becoming intermediate before plowing into a cloud at full force. There was no such hesitation or inconstancy in the golden comet that ripped an arc across the heavens before corkscrewing tighter and tighter into that same cloud. This time the magical firmament shattered entirely, the magical bonds that held the vapor together ripping violently apart and transitioning into streamers of impermeable mist. From within the destroyed cloudstuff, licks of fire like the breath of a dragon exploded out from the impact.
For a long moment, the sky was silent, the flames dimming as they spread out.
Then the blue streak appeared again, sputtering, choking, buzzing not in a clean line but in an erratic zag that would do a wounded bumblebee proud. The golden light appeared again, circling blindingly fast before zipping in and out, each time knocking the blue light off course, before it vanished entirely.
Down in Ponyville, more than a few ponies muttered about the strange noises and flight patterns. Reckless young flyers? A pair of stallions fighting? Some kind of performance or airshow? A problem with the weather team?
Like a tiny blue firefly, the cyan stream started to move again, accelerating -
Before the golden streak, coiling and shedding licks of flame slammed into and through it, crashing to the ground outside the town like a meteorite. Past the market square, past the town hall in mid-restoration, past the Carousel Boutique and down the street from Sugarcube Corner, across a rolling green field and neat rows of decorative trees and scrubs, a fire consumed the cratered face of a small hillside. From within the smoke, a yellow body began to emerge.
"Soarin!" A mare's voice yelled, off to the side. "I thought you said she was improving!"
"Hey! She is! She is!" A blue mane and similarly azure stallion peeked out from behind a tree. "I'd say twenty percent improvement!"
"You think so?" Spitfire stepped to the side as another blue form, wreathed in frazzled, sooty rainbow colors lunged out of the inferno. Her left wing snapped out, catching the pony by the throat and throwing her back.
Rainbow Dash tumbled across the field and out of the fires, yelling as she slammed her hooves down and sprung back up onto all fours. Shaking like a dog, a small black cloud of ash fell away from her coat. Coughing, she nonetheless remained standing, sparing one hoof for only a second to cover her mouth.
"Look at this," Spitfire hissed, motioning to the scrape in her uniform with a critical sneer. "All this... and the most you can do is scratch me? A pet cat could do better!"
"I'm not out yet!" Dash roared, lunging wildly for the Wonderbolt with her hooves.
Spitfire shook her head in dismay, sweeping one golden wing back and up, a crest of flame rising up like a sine wave. Ritterkreuz wasn't the only pyrotechnic pegasus on the Wonderbolts roster. One of their signature moves was to leave a trail of crackling cloud in their wake. Fire was easy for some of them. Fire came naturally to one of them.
"Awgh! More stupid fire?! Geez!" Dash's lunge came to an averted end in the face of Spitfire's flamewave, forcing her to dodge off to the side and then up, as a second wave rolled towards her. A momnent's hesitation cost her, as one of her feathers caught fire. "Bucking horsecocks!"
Burgundy colored eyes shot to the offended, burning feather, and then upwards.
A golden blur of a wing slapped her in the back of the head, forcing the pegasus to crash back down and into the dirt. Dash couldn't count how often she had ended up "making out with Equestria" as Soarin called it. It didn't get any more amusing, no matter how often he used the phrase.
Four hooves, coated in Wonderbolts blue, landed in front of the prone weathermare.
"If I was Ritter just then, you'd be dead," Spitfire snarled, all business. She and Soarin couldn't be more different when it came to training. Dash found she was rather thankful Soarin spent much more time with her than Spitfire did.
"Forget Ritterkreuz!" the squadron leader barked. "If I'd been serious then, just me, I'd have used fire and not just my wing! What is rule five, cadet?!"
"It is essential... to try and always attack... from behind..."
Dash started to push herself back up and half expected to get stomped on for it, but Spitfire was already walking away, considering the fight finished. The weathermare tensed, struck by the urge to make another leap for her, now that her back was turned.
Spitfire looked back, nodding. There was no point in attacking from behind, not when your opponent was expecting it. Dash groaned, coughing as she tried to get back up. Spitfire hit a lot harder than Soarin did, and that was saying something. He didn't look it, but Soarin's wings were like the pegasus equivalent of Applejack's legs. She closed her eyes against the heat and smoke and remembered another pair of Wonderbolt wings: huge and gray, vibrating enough that she could hear it in the bones of her ears. They were the strongest wings in the strongest squad of pegasi in all of Equestria.
She remembered an entire row of trees ripped to shreds by explosions.
She remembered being caught in those explosions.
"Heh. Heheh! Awesome!" Dash laughed to herself, ambling away from the fires left in Spitfire's wake. "The higher you set the bar, the higher I have to fly! I don't mind it one bit!"
"Twenty percent better," Spitfire commented, her back still turned. "Maybe."
With a few flaps, she stretched her wings out and then snapped them back in.
"Soarin!" she barked.
"I got it!" He flew by at a leisurely pace, a saturated rain cloud snagged in his tail. "You bossy pyromaniac."
The golden mare shot him a cross, suffering look.
"Hey, some guys like bossy pyromaniacs. You don't know it wasn't a compliment! You can't disprove it! Okay! I'm going! ... Bossy."
While Soarin took to fire-detail, Dash managed to find an un-singed tree and collapsed against it. She refused to fall down - and didn't, until Spitfire trotted over and kicked her legs out from under her. She fell to the ground with a thud, and a sigh of relief.
"Relax. Catch your breath," she advised. For a time, the two mares just watched Soarin darting around, either snuffing out the fires with wind or as necessary, a few seconds of intense rainfall.
"You've got the body," Spitfire finally said. "But your skills still need work. Lots of work. Why did you keep attacking me head on? Do you like punishment? Is that it? Or are you too proud to go for a pony's back?"
Rainbow Dash, her breathing slow but clear, took a moment to reply.
"That isn't it," she said, and Spitfire glanced down at her. "It isn't that I'm too proud or... or that I like getting hurt. I really don't."
"Then what?" the Wonderbolt asked, losing her earlier viciousness and settling down on her stomach next to the weathermare. "What is it?"
"It's... it's just my personality, I guess?" Dash tried to explain it. It was hard. She didn't quite get it herself, and looking deeply at her life, her motivations and her personality wasn't high on her to-do list. Dash knew she probably couldn't soul-search even if her life depended on it.
"I like to go at things head on and head first," she said, and it was the unvarnished and probably ugly truth. "You guys keep telling me: always try and attack from behind. Don't put yourself in danger. Try and minimize your risk and fly conservatively. It guess the truth is that sort of thing just doesn't fit me very well..."
Avoid a head to head confrontation. That was what she had been told since the start of her training with Soarin. It was one of the fundamental rules of pegasus combat, formulated by the founder of the team himself: the famous pegasus ace, Boltcke. Air to air combat was exceptionally dangerous by nature - a wounded pegasus was most likely to die from her fall, not in mid-air, and collisions at high speeds weren't conducive to long term health. Because of this, a flyer was supposed to avoid injury and attack from the safest angle possible. Even attacking directly from the rear was dangerous, due to getting kicked. The best angle to attack from was the rear hemisphere, but outside a cone directly behind.
An ace hit the enemy fast and hard, with surprise, and then flew away to make sure her opponent tumbled to her... to her...
"You're just like her."
"Huh?" Dash asked, snapped out of her thoughts.
"Ritterkreuz. That idiot will bash a wall down instead of look for a door," Spitfire described it with an out of place grin, almost as if it brought up a fond memory. "I'm not even kidding. One time, after a show, we stayed late with the fans and found the locker room closed. The janitor was just down the hall, but instead of call for him, that moron just kicked the doors down. Stupid, bull-headed... idiot..."
Rainbow Dash let her trail off, keeping her eyes on Soarin instead.
The thought came to her and had to be asked: "Ritter was your friend, wasn't she?"
Spitfire blinked, sucking in a breath.
"I thought she was..." Spitfire closed her eyes and reached a hoof up to tuck some of her bright orange mane behind her ear. "Maybe I just saw what I wanted to see."
"Is that why you let her go?"
"Let her go?" Spitfire asked, shocked at the suggestion. "I let her go because..."
"Because?" Dash asked, finally looking her idol in the eye. "Spitfire, you're... you're amazing. You were so fast up there, and - and that thing with the flames? I could barely follow your moves! Why don't you fight Ritterkreuz? Why didn't you?"
Spitfire softly exhaled, looking back at the burning field, now mostly extinguished.
"I need to talk to Soarin," she said, getting up. "Excuse me."
Dash watched her go, she watched carefully, her ears up and listening. Unfortunately for her, Spitfire pulled her fellow Wonderbolt away and well out of earshot. All the weathermare could see were their expressions at a distance, and then not even that as Spitfire pointedly turned Soarin's head away.
She didn't hear that she was very much the topic of conversation.
"Damnit. Raging Storm, too?" Soarin asked, fighting to keep his voice hushed. "Unbelievable."
"They confirmed it at the headquarters this morning," Spitfire whispered, one foreleg over Soarin's shoulders. "You know what this means, don't you?"
The blue Wonderbolt stallion nodded grimly.
"It means no more getting yelled at?"
"... I mean, do you know what this really means?"
"Yeah," Soarin admitted, lowering his eyes. "That, too."
"I'm trusting you," Spitfire whispered. "With everything."
"Got it. Got it! You can count on me. Just take care of yourself, Spits."
Stealing a quick look back at where Rainbow Dash lay in the shade of a tree, Spitfire leaned over and kissed her old friend and partner on the cheek. Just a quick peck on the cheek. Soarin's eyes widened a little in surprise, but he smiled, understanding what she meant. Words would've just been awkward... and inappropriate. Now more than ever.
"For the honor of the Wonderbolts," she whispered.
"For the honor of the Wonderbolts," Soarin repeated. "Come back intact, Captain. Pinkie Pie will want to throw you a promotion party. And I want to upend a barrel of cider over your head."
Spitfire's sulfur-yellow eyes fell on the horizon and the challenge ahead. The skirmish with Dash had proved it.
"I'll do more than come back," she promised. "Just wait and see."
- - -
Apple Bloom sighed. A pony could tell it was a slow day when she had time to work on her school report instead of help out at the cider stand. The first day of cider season coincided with Decoration Day Weekend. For most families it was three wonderful days of relaxation, yard parties, barbeques and the occasional fireworks accident... and what went best with yard parties, barbeques and the occasional fireworks maiming better than cider?
Nothing. The answer was nothing.
Hence, every Decoration Day Weekend as far back as she could remember, Apple Bloom had helped out at the cider stand just outside the Sweet Apple Acres main gate. Under Granny Smith's watchful eye, she got to pour mug after mug of frothy, flavorful cider that Applejack and Big Mac had made the day before. Every year, the line of thirsty ponies outside Sweet Apple Acres stretched over hills and dales almost to the town of Ponyville itself. It usually petered off after about a week, but for those first seven days it was always a flurry of excitement and activity!
Today... like the last two days before it... less so.
Sitting on the grass, her hooves mashed up against her cheeks, Apple Bloom's eyelids began to droop. Cheerilee had given her students a particularly annoying report to write over the vacation. Since the line of waiting ponies this morning had taken less than half an hour to finish off and none of her friends were around there was nothing much to do except kill time by - Apple Bloom shuddered - reading and doing homework.
A few ponies trotted down the road from town while she slowly read through her library book, buying a few mugs of cider before finishing and heading back to town. Applejack waved them off with a smile... only to gesture over Big Mac and Granny for another quick talk. Probably about prices and other business-stuff. Apple Bloom really hoped they wouldn't have to relocate into the town itself like Applejack had suggested earlier. Moving twelve or more full cider barrels wouldn't be easy, even for Big Mac.
The sight of two familiar ponies walking down the road perked Apple Bloom up right away.
"Sweetie Belle! Scootaloo!"
"Hi, Apple Bloom!" Sweetie Belle waved, running the rest of the way. Uncharacteristically lagging behind on her scooter, Scootaloo seemed to struggle to keep up. She looked sort of tired.
"Ah'm so glad you guys came by!" Apple Bloom gave Sweetie a quick hug before the two turned to wait for the third Crusader. "Hey, Scootaloo! You okay?"
"Fine. Just fine." Scootaloo came to a stop and jumped off her scooter. Shaking her mane and wings, a single white feather drifted to the ground.
Sweetie Bell lowered her head to stare at the strange feather. "Is that a-"
"Chicken feather?" Apple Bloom asked, recognizing it. It was too small to be a ponyfeather, even a filly's ponyfeather. "Hey, it is!"
"S-so how's the cider stuff going?" Scootaloo conspicuously changed the subject, her efforts paired with a big, guilty grin.
"Pretty slow," Apple Bloom admitted, glancing back at the cider stand.
"You wanna go crusading?" Sweetie asked, hoping to cheer her friend up. "We could borrow an accordion and one of Fluttershy's monkeys and get our performing artist cutie marks!"
Apple Bloom's spirits did perk up at the thought. A couple hours of cutie mark crusading did sound fun! "Sure! Lemme just ask Applejack and Granny Smith first."
"We totally should've just snuck away while they weren't looking," Scootaloo grumbled, face flush and cheek down against the wooden counter of the apple stall. "I don't even want a market research cutie mark. No pony wants a market research cutie mark!"
"Ah know it ain't exactly everypony's idea of fun, Scootaloo, but this is important work," Applejack told her as she leafed through a small pile of papers. The apple farmer took a moment to pat the little pegasus on the head, ruffling her mane. "And Ah'm right thankful that you three helped out! Ah couldn't have done it without ya!"
"Really?" Scootaloo asked, looking up at the older pony. It was getting late already; she'd have to head home soon, and after that, sneak out onto the roof to... do that other thing.
"After all the time we spent on this, ah really thought we'd get somethin!" Apple Bloom stared forlornly at her bare flank. "Ah think an apple with a check mark on it could'a been pretty nice."
"Or three check marks!" Sweetie Belle bit her lower lip as she fumbled her magical hold on several pieces of paper, sending them flying. "Aw! Stupid paper!"
"Ah got it," Applejack said, deftly picking the papers out of the air with her mouth. She then inserted them into the pile tucked under her left foreleg.
"Applejack?" Sweetie asked, slumping a bit until her forelegs stretched out over the market stall. "Are you and Apple Bloom really in trouble? I'd buy some of your cider... if I was old enough."
"You don't have any money," Scootaloo reminded her, rather ruining the sentiment.
"I'd just borrow some bits from Rarity!" the little unicorn insisted, smirking at her friend for coming up with a perfect comeback. "Rarity's got tons of bits now! And Prince Blueblood gives me anything I want if I bug him about it enough. Five or six times usually works."
"Five or six times?"
"Five or six times," Sweetie Belle confirmed. "He doesn't have much of a tolerance yet." She smiled over at Applejack, the farmer having paused in thought.
"What a second, Sweetie Belle," she said, slowly. "What did you just say?"
Sweetie blinked, momentarily confused. "You mean about bugging Prince Blueblood to buy you toys? Well, first you have to get inside that big house he has and find him, and then you have to make sure Rarity isn't around, and then you just have to keep asking him over and over and over and over-"
"Uh, no... not that..."
"Oh! You mean about me getting bits from Rarity?" Sweetie asked, and saw Applejack's expression become thoughtful... and then doubtful. She clopped two hooves together as her earlier idea took form. "Sure! If I was old enough, I'd just buy ALL your cider, and then you wouldn't have to worry about selling it!"
"That..." Applejack struggled for a second before vigorously shaking her head, dismissing whatever was on her mind. "That ain't right, Sweetie Belle. It's sweet of ya, but what yer describin' ain't exactly ethical."
"It isn't?" Sweetie asked. "Why?"
"Yeah, why not?" Apple Bloom chimed in, poking Applejack on the leg. "It sounds like a great idea to me!"
"It's cheating," Scootaloo guessed. She was still face down on the hardwood, looking half asleep.
"Cheating?" Sweetie and Apple Bloom asked in stereo.
"That's right. If you ask me, we Apples gotta sell our apples fairly or not at all." Applejack glared accusingly down at the papers in her left hoof, and tucked under her right foreleg. "As much as Granny doesn't want'ta believe it, those Flim Flam fellas make good cider... the research you girls helped with proves that... and they make a lot of it. They made in a day what we make in darn-near a week."
"But they're cheating, too!" Apple Bloom insisted, stomping her hooves. "Their crazy machine does all the work for 'em! They aren't really workin' at all!"
"Now, Apple Bloom, you know that ain't fair. Unicorns do things a little different, but that machine 'a theirs ain't much more than a fancy wagon and press. We don't crush them apples by hoof, now do we? What they got is fancier than what we got, that's all. Ah'm not even upset at that. It's pretty darn impressive... what Ah just can't put my hoof on is how they can afford all this!"
Applejack folded up the survey papers and put them on the table.
"They brought their own apples, includin' ones from Appleoosa. Brought em in by train. That's fine and dandy," she admitted, turning around to stare across the market. The Flim Flam 'cider garden' could just be seen from where they set up the stall. "But Appleoosa apples shipped in fresh cost upwards'a two and a half bits each, even in bulk. Ah recognize some'a the others, too. Most'a them are cheaper, but their expenses don't add up."
"I thought you didn't like playing with numbers?" Apple Bloom asked.
"Ah don't. Not like Big Mac, always tryin' ta save a bit here or there by messin' with the books. Ah've never been into that fancy math..."
"I don't like any sort of math," Scootaloo grumbled.
"But," Applejack continued, "those two cider boys can't possibly be making any money off this trip, no matter how much they sell. Not at one-darn-bit a mug. That just ain't possible. Ah thought, maybe, they were makin' up the difference in all them brandy knickknacks ponies are buyin' from em, but that can't be it. They're throwin' away all their money on penetratin' pricing, and for what, just'ta under-cut us? Cider season ain't year-round revenues. Maybe they think if Sweet Apple Acres goes broke before they do, then they'll be able'ta corner the market and drive up prices?"
"Aaahhh! I don't understand!" Sweetie Belle clutched her hooves to the sides of her head and groaned. "So they aren't making money? What's the point if you aren't making money?"
Applejack explained, "Imagine two ponies are both selling the same thing, like sugar, which everypony needs... both of them can sell this sugar for ten bits and make a small profit. Then, say, one can put the other outta business by selling his sugar for cheap. Everypony will buy the cheaper sugar, assumin' there's no change in quality. The pony who keeps trying to sell at ten bits won't sell anything at all."
"But the pony who sells the cheap sugar loses money, too!" Apple Bloom jumped in, seeing how the story turns out. "It's like a game ah chicken."
Scootaloo's left ear twitched.
"The pony sellin' the cheap sugar is bettin' that the other pony will run outta money first and give up. Then, when they're the only game in town, and everypony has to come to them for sugar, they can make up their losses!" Apple Bloom, rather more financially savvy than her friends expected, grinned at having figured things out. Then her smile faded as she realized it wasn't just a story: it was her family and her future.
"So who has more money?" Apple Bloom asked, turning to her sister. "Us, or Flim and Flam?"
"That's what ah gotta figure out," Applejack replied, subdued.
"What if they have more?" Sweetie wondered. "What then?"
"Then... then ah'll figure sometin' out. Don't you worry none!" Applejack looked around at the three crusaders she had conscripted into helping her for the afternoon. "Ah'll figure somethin' out."
- - -
Lyra Heartstrings was in heaven.
On one hoof, she was Celestia-only-knows how high in a cloudy dream garden, but that was looking at the expression too literally... figuratively, she was in an artistic heaven. This fact was both wonderful and unusual, in that she had never considered herself to be that exceptional a musician. Stringed instruments were her talent, true enough, but they weren't her passion in the way the Apple family went cuckoo for apples or even the way Bon Bon went nutty over her confectionary (pea-nutty to be specific). Music was just something that came naturally, something that made money, and something that she enjoyed enough to do frequently. Okay, it sounded like a passion, but she had never really thought of it as one before.
Things were different here. Here, in the Hanging Gardens, Lyra found herself beset by a relentless and fruitful muse; it sang to her when she trotted along ivy covered flagstones, melded supernaturally into ethereal cloudstuff, it whispered to her from trickling streams in the clouds, some flowing with water but others dribbling pure color. It was the magic of inspiration. There was no other way to describe it.
Never before had she felt the need to try and alter a piece of music, much less compose her own.
Never, before coming here, to this magical place. It was heaven, for artists, and Lyra had soon learned that she was not the only one in residence. Lord Alpha Brass had collected artists from across Equestria, inviting them to be his clients and to them, he became a beloved sponsor and patron. Not long after being given his gifts, Lyra had run into - just by chance - the infamous Soleil Levant in one of the tiered gardens below. The mare was the most well known of the upstart Impressionists making their mark in Canterlot and elsewhere, challenging traditional Equestrian schools of art.
Not a day later, taking an unguided, meandering tour of the palace in the sky, Lyra had found carvers and poets and even other musicians, all lost in their creative endeavors. One that had stuck with Lyra in particular was a glassblower, working in murrine: she had set up a small workshop and her colorful, delicate sculptures of glass and crystal seemed as otherworldly as the statues and blocks of pink and white marble were, set here among the clouds. She had even found a pegasus artist working in ice and cloud, whose fantastic representations of ponies and scenes in miniature were magically preserved by her apprentice - a harmonious combination of pegasus and unicorn magic to create a new form of art.
All of which should have put pressure on her to do the same, but instead of that weight on her shoulders, all Lyra felt was relaxation and contentment. The only anxiety she felt was with respect to her host and when she would finally, finally be called in to speak with him as she had been waiting for. The hours since had seemed like days, and the days like weeks. Disturbingly, she thought of him and their too brief meeting when she napped. He had promised to speak with her again and it was all she could do to occupy herself and wait.
She had devoured the book he had given her on Equestrian history and ancient, traditional pony beliefs (she did not like referring to them as cults). It had only whetted her appetite for more. There had only been a few teasing references to humans, Orion specifically, and their place among the celestial pantheon and the vault of stars. She still wasn't sure how Lord Brass had known she would be interested in such a thing... but she couldn't wait to ask him, and to see what else he had and what else he thought. Her heart insisted that it would be soon, that he was merely finding the time, and that he hadn't forgotten.
Floating a gold and silver harp along to practice with, Lyra trotted down halls that quickly became familiar and comforting where once they had been strange and intimidating. She paid only passing mind to the great tapestries, paintings and busts that lined the glittering hallway. Even the scintillating light from towering stain glass windows seemed but a fleeting fascination from the day before. She did pause at one - one she didn't recall being where it was currently.
It was a ice and cloud sculpture of Lord Alpha Brass, his hooves outstretched and welcoming, as if in an embrace. Who he was meant to embrace, Lyra couldn't guess. Was it his older, absentee wife, Lady Olive Branch? His daughters? Was his embrace meant for anypony? Was that the artist's intent? Or was it...
Lyra reached out, to touch one of his ethereal hooves, but shook her head.
The strangest dizzy feeling had come and gone.
Luckily, it hadn't disturbed her concentration and led to her dropping her harp. She continued on her way, down a tier of abstract crystal mosaics towards the still pools she had caught sight of the day before from one of the upside-down hanging balconies. When she had inquired about them, one of the staff had told her that they were heated pools, open to all guests. An afternoon reclining and relaxing and swimming appealed and she made her way around, exploring as she tried to find a route. Another pleasant thing about the magics of the garden was that it was neither too hot or too cold, despite the altitude. It was always perfect; always just what was comfortable and inviting.
"Finally!" Lyra exclaimed, finding the elaborate brass gate to the many pools. She smiled, especially with the thought of one of the pools in particular. From her view the other day, she had seen partly through it, but instead of finding a bottom, it had revealed a shifting patch of sky.
If her suspicions were correct, the bottom of the pool was literally looking out over Equestria.
Making her way through the gate, she also heard a strange melody. It was undeniably stringed, and Lyra's ears twitched at the sound of it. Unlike normal, the source of the sound - the actual instrument being played - did not come readily to mind. Slowing, she looked around and saw what had to be the wellspring of the haunting music. The notes were sharp and distinct, but the melody strung them together in a way that complimented the mix of chords.
The musician was the earth pony mare from the night Lyra had played for the Lord's dinner. She still wore strange white attire that covered her from neck to fetlocks, folded neatly over her body despite her sitting in what looked like an uncomfortable position for a pony. Not that Lyra was one to complain when it came to sitting in unorthodox ways... but still. It must've taken practice to fold one's legs off to the side like this mare was.
More interesting was the way she was playing the long, strange wooden instrument. Her hooves were dancing over the strings, plucking them as ponies hooves permitted, but also running the front of her hoof along them in a manner Lyra hadn't seen before. Not only weren't there many earth pony musicians in the stringed instrument family - though there were a few famous ones, like the lead cellist in the Canterlot String and Symphony Orchestra Company - but they couldn't do what this pony was doing. Not unaided.
Peering intently, genuinely curious, Lyra could see how it was done: there were smaller 'picks' attached to the rim and base of this pony's hoof, allowing her fine albeit artificial control over which of the bridged strings she touched. Picks were not unknown, of course, but the ones native to Canterlot where Lyra had learned to play didn't look like these. Then again, this instrument was unlike anything she had seen before: played not upright, but laid down on the ground.
The cream white pony stared up at her as she ended her piece.
Green eyes narrowed behind her black mane and she seemed about to snap out something angry over the intrusion only for there to be a brief pause. Recognition. "You? You are... the harpist?"
The mare then noticed the harp Lyra had floating behind her and shook her head, seemingly upset by how easily she was upset. She put her foreleg hooves against the cool stone tiles and turned around to bow her head politely.
"My apologies," she said, in an amicable tone. "I do not believe we have met. I have the honor of being Lady Yumi of the Garland Clan."
"Oh! That's right, you're a..." Lyra hastily and stiffly bowed in reply. "Sorry. I'm Lyra. Just Lyra. Or, um, Lyra Heartstrings. You can call me Heartstrings, too, if you want. My Lady."
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Lyra Heartstrings," Yumi said, and smiled pleasantly. Lyra relaxed a bit, sitting down on all fours in a much more comfortable position. "Please call me Lady Yumi."
Lyra nodded eagerly, now that she had an opportunity to satiate her curiosity.
"That instrument there," she said, pointing with one hoof. "What is it? I've never seen one before!"
"This is a koto. I am not surprised you haven't seen one outside Neighpon."
"Are you a musician, too? Neighpon, huh?"
"Yes, but no. I am from Neighpon, naturally, but I am not a musician like yourself," Yumi explained. "In my country, a Lady must be versed in music, poetry, calligraphy and combat. The koto is merely my chosen instrument."
"You play it well... I think so anyway!" Lyra put her harp down by her side. "It sounds so different than what I'm used to. Could you show me how to play that piece you just did?" Realizing she was probably imposing, Lyra quickly put on a nervous grin. "I mean, I don't want to take up your time or anything, and I'm sure you're busy, but if you're not or... you know?"
"I wouldn't mind. I have found myself with a preponderance of free time in this unnatural pleasure dome." Yumi's green eyes seemed to watch Lyra closely for a moment, evaluating her, memorizing her face from more than one angle. "First, I would have you tell me: when did you arrive here? More than a week ago?"
Lyra shook her head. "Just a couple days. Just before the dinner I played for. Why?"
Yumi lowered her eyes, and scooted over to the side. "No reason. Come, let me show you..."
Even as Yumi explained it, Lyra found herself acclimating to the new instrument. It was a zither, originally brought over from the far reaches of the Old Kingdoms. The wood was different now, and the number of strings had multiplied from three and four to thirteen or more, but the history of it was as fascinating as learning the basics of how it played and what the equivalent chords were. It was not just the history of an musical instrument, it was the story of Equestria in miniature.
For thousands of years, ponykind had lived in the 'Old Kingdoms' and like the koto, the societies they built had become more and more complex. The lyre on her flank was not a modern harp - it was an ancient design now rarely used by modern ponies. The Three Tribes had grown alongside one another, trading ideas and beliefs from a common wellspring of pony experience and knowledge, but almost always in competition for resources and influence. Any schoolfoal knows what happened in a general sense: about the Winter Wars or at least the Winters caused by the 'lack of harmony.'
Yumi's ancestors, the ones who brought the koto to Equestria, had not come with the three main migrations: that of Puddinghead, Hurricane and Platinum. Like many smaller subgroups that made up today's Equestria, they had come to the new world on their own and, freed from the yoke of their Tribes, they had set up their own tiny fiefdoms, some homogeneous and others more varied experiments in harmony. In some of these fiefdoms, indigenous magic had even gone so far as to cause ponies to diverge in appearance.
One of those fiefdoms in particular, founded by earth ponies but along imperial unicorn styles, had developed in relative isolation, moving far from their cousins and seeking refuge from the winters and Windigos by sequestering themselves away. Like the Crystal Empire and the Bitalians, they formed their own power structures and even a royal family to bridge the old and new worlds. Neighpon's isolation eventually and inevitably came to a forceful end when an Equestrian explorer came to work for the royal court there, exposing them to the wider world and vice versa. The Blueblood at the time became convinced that the smaller country needed to be included in Equestria proper, and after some altercations, the then-Imperial family cemented a treaty, bowing to Celestia and accepting her as supreme sovereign.
In Neighpon, the Princess was the Empress.
The bond that tied Neighpon to Equestria, naturally, was one of blood.
"We accepted a Blueblood son into our line four hundred and fifty two years ago this winter," Yumi explained, having long since moved on from her description of the koto. Lyra didn't mind the tangent the conversation had taken; history in general was a subject she enjoyed and her musical talent had quickly adapted to the point where she could play some basic melodies on the instrument.
"Since then," she continued, sounding not so much upset as she was vexed. "...we have not once been considered for inclusion back into the royal line. We, who have the blood of the Sun Goddess in our veins."
"Princess Celestia?" Lyra asked. She had heard of the Princess being called similar before.
"Not her, I mean the star-god." Yumi saw Lyra's confusion over the terminology she had used and attempted to clarify, "I believe I am not using the right words. In Neighpon, it is our belief that in ancient times, gods could come down from the heavens and take pony form. Unicorns believe something similar, do they not?"
"Not these days," Lyra replied, shaking her head. "Most ponies just think of them as weird spirits or monsters, like Discord. Not gods."
"Oh?" Yumi considered that, and it wasn't clear just how much of it she actually separated from myth.
Myth. It was myth, after all. Humans were one thing, but the idea that spirits like Discord or Windigos or Sagittarius or Ursa Major... the thought that they could take pony-form and even have children with mortal ponies? Or spirit them away to the stars? It was just ancient fantasy and parable. It was a way for ponies to make sense of the world and explain the origins of magic and, yes, to give their lives and existence context and meaning.
"An Ursa Minor attacked my town, Ponyville, just last year," Lyra said, hooves comfortably strumming the strings of the koto before her. The plectrum glove that Yumi had provided (luckily they had the same hoof size) felt wonderfully natural.
Almost like having fingers!
"I remember back in astronomy class, we were told that The Ursa Major was once a pony called Beautiful Light, or Callisto, and that because of her beauty she was cursed by jealous spirits. These days, they imagine her as an alicorn, but in older myths she's a unicorn. Anyway, the spirits, they turned her into a monstrous bear, but she was with child when she was transformed and gave birth to a foal. A little baby colt with no wings or horn but with tremendous physical strength. That foal became one of the progenitors of the earth ponies."
"So the legend goes," Lyra concluded, skeptical. "I know plenty of strong earth ponies back in Ponyville, but I really doubt any of them is descended from an Ursa Major. The Ursa Minor that attacked the town sure didn't see anypony as his long lost brother or sister. Like: oh, hey Big Mac! AJ! I just dropped by to eat a few unicorns. See you at the next reunion! Nope, it was pretty much just roaring and smashing."
"I am not saying I believe it... entirely," Yumi said after a long, placid silence. The Neighponese heiress sighed and turned her eyes up to the heavens. "My family traces its lineage back to the spirit of the sun, before Celestia... though she wasn't even the one who descended as a pony. It was her grandson, and his mother was a sword. I - I suppose it is somewhat silly. It is... mostly just a title and point of pride."
Yumi's green eyes squinted against the filtered sunlight, softened by the canopy-like shield around Alpha Brass's Hanging Gardens. Still, only a moment or two and the heiress had to turn away, eyes squinted shut.
"We have our pride, we Neighponese. We are not children of Platinum or Hurricane, but we have our pride." Her eyes opened and they were hard. "I will remind Equestria of this by becoming Duchess. There is no stallion more fit to be my husband than the Prince, and no mare more fit to rule than This Lady Yumi."
The plectrum on Lyra's hoof paused, mid-melody.
"Lady Antimony said something... similar... I think...?"
Lyra's mouth moved faster than her mind. For some reason, for just a split second, the image of the red-eyed noblemare from Prance had filled her world, a reflection of Lyra herself swirling in those wide open eyes. What had they talked about again, back then...? She had visited, asking about the torc. That was it. The torc.
Bon Bon had been there, but she went to sleep, and -
"Do not speak that name in my presence again!" Yumi snarled but quickly smoothed over her momentary lapse. "Lyra Heartstrings, I would ask you not to mention her. That mare only wants power. I despise her and as for her family..."
"Pardon, my Lady, but aren't we in her brother's estate?" Lyra asked, trying not to sound insulting. "Flying estate, but still his estate. And you had dinner with him. What about his family?"
Yumi seemed to want to say something, but couldn't; in the end she kept her mouth closed.
"I fear you would not understand," she finally said, "and no matter. It does not concern you. I think I may-"
A sudden crash prompted the Neighponese Lady from finishing her sentence, likely a polite excusing of herself. Lyra and Yumi both turned at once to see a thin marble column fall to the ground, the sparkling globe of soft light that had once been on top crackling open. A marble gyrfalcon, once perched on the magical orb, was now broken into a dozen pieces, ruined forever.
"Ha ha ha! Look at that! You're so-ooo clumsy Auntie!" A bright blue mane flashed by, jumping and winding fast up another column. Two pairs of eyes caught the end of it as it reached the top of the second column, a single hoof perched on top of the head of another gyrfalcon, somehow, without even damaging the delicate statuary.
There, balanced on one leg, was the blue-maned, white-coated pony from the dinner before.
And in her mouth was what appeared to be a large but basic canvas frame. She held it between her teeth, in the middle of a large, playful grin. Two forelegs whirled in comic circles, not so much keeping her balance - she sure didn't seem to be in any threat from falling - but just to burn up energy and look flashy. Down on the ground, next to the rubble that had once been a slender pillar, a smaller pink mare shook the dust off her coat.
"Euporie!" she yelled up at the perched unicorn. "Give that back right now! Please!"
"No!" Euporie replied, speaking around the wooden frame in her mouth. "Come and get it if you want it so much!"
"Do as I say! Give it back!"
"And I said no! Take it!"
"I said I was sorry!"
"And I told you: I'll tell you when you're sorry!"
"This isn't funny!" the pink mare cried, mashing her hoof into her cheek. "Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!" Despite the desperation in her voice and the glistening tears in her eyes she was smiling. Wiping a few tears away, she tried to push down her smile as well.
Up on her perch, Euporie chuckled, dark and mischievous. "You say one thing but your body says another, Auntie."
"Please just give me back my painting! Please!"
"You're not sorry enough yet."
"I am sorry!" The petite pink mare yelled, bowing her head. "Please just give it back!"
"Didn't I just tell you? Words are empty. Meaningless. How you feel is what counts. But! If you want to prove to me that you feel sorry..." Euporie's own smile twitched, just for a second. Then it grew wild and wide. "Then sure, I'll forgive you! You can have it back. Here!"
She spat the painting off to the side, and into the pool.
"NO!" The pink mare cried, realizing only too late -
"Got it!" Lyra said, grabbing the picture and frame in a burst of magic as she ran by. Reeling it in and tucking it against her chest, she came to a skidding stop on the other side of the crystal clear water. Still seated by the koto, Lady Yumi made no other move than to narrow her eyes.
"Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!" The pink mare ran over, but not to inspect the painting Lyra had saved. She pointedly put herself between the musician and the blue-maned Euporie still perched impossibly on top of the pillar. The otherwise normal looking unicorn shaded her amber eyes but never lost the grin on her face.
"That was pretty lucky Auntie," she admitted, her grin somehow finding a way to grow wider. "But you should have let it fall in the water. It was a crappy drawing anyway. It was trash. And the only thing to do with trash is throw it out. That's what I say. Now? Now I'm going to have to find another way to-"
"To what?" Yumi asked, slowly making her way over to Lyra and the pink mare. "Are you really going to start a fight? With all three of us?"
"How does there being three of you change anything?" Euporie managed to say it with a giggle. "No! Wait. On second thought: if anything, three-to-one makes it perfect odds for me!"
"Sister. You said you would forgive Aunt Chalice, didn't you?"
The new voice came from another, almost identical mare, but with a close cut red tail and primly styled mane. This unicorn stood inconspicuously next to the destroyed column, eyeing it with displeasure. She didn't spare a look up at her sister, as if calculating the trouble caused in the wake of the mess assuming, without a doubt, that it was already over. The tension in the air hardly seemed to matter.
"But!" Euporie objected.
"Words are not meaningless. They can not be taken back and deals are deals. You said 'I'll forgive you.' You said 'you can have it back.' You may have said them without meaning to honor them, but you still said them." The red-maned sister levitated the broken orb, still leaking magic from the cracked glass surface. "The question you should be asking yourself is: how much destruction can I cause before father gets upset? By my reasoning, you are very close to that point of no return."
Euporie's grin slipped, drawing down just a bit...
"Besides which," the frowning mare droned on. "You should know better than to pick fights with our Aunts. Any of them. What do you think will happen if you keep pushing on Aunt Chalice? What will happen if you attack father's honored guests? Isn't it wiser to save your energy for something important like our trip?"
...until it was just a small smile.
"Shut up. You're a dull stick in the mud as usual, Eunomie," Euporie said in a toneless voice. "But you're probably right. This time."
She vanished in a flash of light without another word. Hearing the sound of magical teleportation, the other mare sighed, finally looking up to be sure her sister had left. Then, facing the three mares by the pool, the red-maned mare lowered her head in apology.
"I am terribly sorry for my sister's behavior," she said. "Aunt Chalice, please forgive her for being so impulsive. Lady Yumi, Miss Heartstrings, I sincerely wish you had not seen such an unbecoming altercation. You have my deepest and most sincere apologies."
"Thank you, Eunomie." Chalice bowed back, visibly relieved. "This isn't your fault, and I'm sorry you had to come out and get involved."
Yumi just huffed, turning up her nose.
"Good afternoon, then," Eunomie punctuated the end of her sentence by also vanishing in a silent, phantom blink, utterly devoid of fanfare, spectacle or wasted magic.
"What was all that about?" Lyra asked, the first thought to cross her mind. She tentatively looked down at the painting she had rescued. It was clearly incomplete, she could still see sketch lines and where the brush had streaked from being suddenly yanked away. It was a picture of two birds nestled together on a branch amid thick bushes.
"Thank you both for helping me. Could I have my painting back, please?" The pink mare with rust colored mane and tail delicately plucked the painting out of Lyra's hooves with a dark field of magic. Lyra blinked, a little shocked by the color. She'd never seen or heard of a unicorn with black-colored magic. "I just wish my brother would do more to rein in that Euporie."
"Whatever did you do to make her so... ummm, she was angry, right?" Lyra asked, turning to Yumi for a second opinion. "Was she angry?"
"Don't let the smile fool you," Chalice replied, holding her painting with a protective foreleg. "I made a terrible mistake. My niece was trying to talk about going down to the surface... about meeting somepony. I wasn't paying enough attention and I offended her. It was my fault."
Yumi sniffed and started walking away. "Well then," she said, with no small measure of sarcasm. "Simply don't repeat the mistake and you'll be fine. I'm sure."
"Where are you going?" Lyra asked. She couldn't say that Yumi had become much of a friend, but at this point she could probably be considered an acquaintance. An aloof one with a superiority complex, but still an acquaintance. She and Bon Bon would probably hate each other thirty seconds after exchanging greetings. Not that Lyra gauged everypony she met by how much her friend and roommate would deal with them, but it would be nice if certain close friends of hers got along. Carrot Top and Bon Bon just being the obvious ones.
Moving on -
"Lady Yumi?" she asked again.
"I have ponies to check up on and actual things to do," Yumi explained, glancing back at Chalice and Lyra. "Besides put myself in danger to keep a doormat from being stepped on. You'll have to forgive me. Perhaps... we could have tea sometime, Lyra Heartstrings. You can return the koto then. Keep practicing with it. Your Cherry Blossom was passable but only just so."
As she trotted off, Yumi didn't get to see Lyra's half-lidded expression.
"Do you know what's up with her?" Lyra asked, the nobility of the pink mare next to her not yet sinking in. "Ponies to check up on, huh?"
"I'm afraid I do know," Chalice replied, violet eyes down-turned. "She has an appointment with my brother... and some of his associates."
- - -
A book flew across the library to land in a rough, messy pile in the corner.
"Just like you thought, Owloysius! Another dead end!"
Alone in the library, save for her unblinking owl companion, Twilight Sparkle paced from one floating book to another, sleepy eyes examining the open, bookmarked pages with mounting frustration. Scrolls were left unfurled over the backs of chairs and hanging from tacks, with one even draped over the bust in the center of the small library. Books, normally stacked in some semblance of order and neatness were now piled one on top of another, disposed of when they proved unhelpful.
"What am I going to do? What am I supposed to say?" Twilight spoke aloud, not bothering to vet her thoughts before she gave voice to them.
Predictably, Owloysius had exactly one mode of response: "Who."
"Me! What am I supposed to do? Not everything can be about you, Owloysius! Let's talk about my problems for once, okay?"
"Exactly!" Twilight, not deranged in the slightest, levitated up a quill pen. "Let's try another letter. Dear Daddy. No... that's too informal! Dear Dad. Hi! NO!"
Crumpling up the paper and throwing it into the wall with a telekinetic crunch, the stricken study bug whipped out another sheet of replacement vellum. The quill immediately set on it like a hungry cockatrice, spilling drops of ink everywhere.
"Dear Dad. Sorry I can't help out, but I'm sure you've got everything under control over in Canterlot! Good luck not getting killed!" She stuck out her tongue and nodded eagerly at Owloysius. "I know! That's good, right? I'll end it with a smiley face. NO!"
"You see, I'd love to help, but Rarity is my friend... no no. Rarity is my good friend. Gotta stress the 'good' friend part. On second thought - or is it third of fourth? Need to keep count next time! Rarity is one of my best friends! You can have multiple 'best' friends, right? I mean, they don't have to be all equal, do they? A friend is a friend, and all, but... I mean, if I was getting married, who would I have as my first bride's maid? I think it would probably be Rarity. Which would be really, really, really awkward if I was marrying Blueblood, because then she would be the bride's maid, but also kind of a co-wife thing? It would just be weird. Like Baked Bads weird. Right? Right? Right."
"Owloysius! Enough! Now isn't the time to argue metaphysics! Assume that a given property can be known independent of direct observation!"
"Yes, yes. I have considered that! I've thought about it quite a lot actually!"
Twilight resumed her pacing around the library as she tried to reason out a solution to the situation that didn't leave somepony on the lurch. If only Spike was still here! He was always a good sounding board and lightning rod for ideas (and stray magic). Not like Owloysius, obsessed as the bird was with existential obfuscation and endless reductionism. There had to be a solution! Something obvious! Something she was missing!
Staring up at a blackboard, covered in sketches and lines, Twilight went back over the basics. Her father was challenging Cruciger and threatening to divide the extended family. She still didn't know why, exactly, he was doing all this - but a tacit assumption was that he had a good reason. Something to do with what Lord Wrathenow had said before he died.
The problems emerged in the fact that the roughly one third of the family from Prance and Two Rivers kept a tight rein on the rest of the family. Every single one of them, from what she had researched, was an accomplished duelist and didn't hesitate to use that to advance their aims. She had looked up Antimony's prowess before, when Rarity had challenged the previous undefeated mare to a duel. She had left Ponyville for Prance and Twilight was positive she would back her father and the main family if it came down to a serious fight.
There she was, up on the board: Antimony (represented by a crude pony with half lidded eyes) - known defeats: one, known victories: twenty one, plus speculative victories: forty eight. Magic: illusion and enchantment. According to Twilight's own analysis, if she were Cruciger himself, Antimony would be best sent against Shining Armor. Twilight knew her brother was skilled in physical magic and barriers, but he was probably still weak when it came to illusions and indirect magic.
Next was Antimony's oldest sister, Polished Jewel (another crude pony sketch, this one with a mouth full of sharp teeth) - known defeats: two, known victories: eleven, plus speculative victories: eighteen. Magic: telekinetic, plus an unknown component. She was married now, and had even had a foal. She probably wouldn't be used against a rebelling branch family. Her stallion, Lord Ash Ford, was also a known and accomplished duelist. The words: RESERVE and BACKUP were circled next to them.
Chalice was another of Antimony's sisters (a pony with an X over her head). Known defeats: five, known victories: three. She didn't have a very impressive record, which was probably why her magic was also a complete unknown. Speculative victories were also a question mark. There was just too little information. Nopony much cared about her or considered her a threat.
Which was exactly why Twilight considered her one.
"Remember Celestia's rules," she muttered to herself. "I will maintain a healthy amount of skepticism and not underestimate somepony or something just because it does not appear threatening. Also, don't feed anything cute after midnight."
Twilight rolled her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous, Owloysius. Spike doesn't count, and he isn't supposed to eat after midnight anyway. Who knows what could happen?"
Then there was Cruciger himself (represented by a big pony with one horn and one antler). The old warhorse hadn't been defeated in a single recorded duel. According to public and family records, he had faced no less than a hundred separate challenges of varying seriousness. Half of them after being nearly crippled killing the previous Prince Blueblood. The only bright spot was that his magic was well known. He was a telekinetic juggernaut, supposedly able to move upwards of a hundred tons using basic - though grossly overpowered - unicorn magic. Twilight couldn't put a number on her own personal best. It was high, yes, but a hundred tons?
If family records were to be believed, Cruciger had once thrown a mage tower at somepony.
The Duke's last recorded duel was five years ago and, like many, it ended with an honorable compromise (probably the challenger had peed himself and given up). Twilight felt a headache coming on. A worse headache, anyway, that wanted to replace the current one. It had a right to! Only the strongest migraine deserved to rule the head of Twilight Sparkle!
If her father was picking a fight with a pony who could legitimately claim to be the most dangerous stallion in the country, Twilight hoped the Old Duke had seriously let himself go over the years. She remembered the magically projected image of the big stallion from Rarity's duel with Antimony. He wasn't a hundred pounds overweight and struggling to breathe, so it was probably hoping against hope that he had lost his edge or that he had a secret heart condition that would manifest itself at just the right time.
Then there was also Alpha Brass (represented by a pony and question mark). He was doubly suspicious, having not a single reliable record of a duel, won or lost. That was perfectly normal for most unicorns, even most low ranking nobleponies, but for a Terre Rare of his standing? It was as if he had dropped off the map and become a cloistered academic or mystic. Which he hadn't. Even Shining Armor had been involved in a hoof-full of duels, and he was such a nice guy it was hard to imagine anypony having a problem with him.
Not that she was biased in that assessment.
"I'm completely impartial," Twilight assured herself and her bird companion. "Right, Owloysius?"
The only other possibility was that Alpha Brass just didn't have any political enemies with any inclination to duel with him. Not a single one. Which made no sense! Twilight already felt herself becoming one of his enemies just because she couldn't get why he was so liked! Even his old grandmare of a wife, Olive Branch, had at least one duel under her belt and she was a revered peacemaker. He was the Marquis of the entire Equestrian colonial frontier, and just a cursory look at the marketplace tabloids proved that the famous philanthropist was no shut-in recluse.
Maybe - maybe he was like her, and simply avoided duels and disputes? That was technically possible, too. It was something to hope for even, that at least one member of the main family had developed a pacifist streak. It was all just that, though: hope. It couldn't be counted into any rational analysis of the situation.
The conclusion she kept coming to, again and again, was that, without getting involved personally, her family would be in serious trouble. Three generations back, a few of Lord Neptunium's children had gotten the idea to break away from the Terre Rares. Neptunium had been Arsenic's third foal and only son, and his line had risen to power among the pegasi in Las Pegasus and Cloudsdale (probably because of their proficiency in water magic). The 'little rebellion' had lasted only as long as it took to force them all back to Prance where they quickly and contritely renounced any disaffection or disenchantment with the Lady Bismuth's heirs, and not under any sort of duress, since they had all written very public proclamations of how they had all been stricken by 'fever' and 'momentary loss of their senses.'
"What is dad thinking?!" Twilight slammed her head into the black chalkboard. "I don't even really want to know about all this stuff! I hate politics! I don't want a title! I just want to study and learn about magic!"
She imagined having to fight her extended family and shuddered. Even though she and Antimony had disagreed, rather strongly, about Rarity and the engagement there, the other mare seemed pleasant enough. Twilight didn't want to duel her.
She didn't want to duel anypony! Not seriously! It never made sense, how absolutely and irrationally crazy some ponies were about 'family honor' and all that stuff. The worst she had ever expected to hear was her mother trying to set up a bunch of arranged marriages and then the embarrassment of having to explain it to her friends... and to get some other academic or magician or noblepony to get used to life in Ponyville, since that was where Twilight felt she probably wanted to put down roots.
"Dear Dad. I really don't want to get involved in any of this. Please just leave me out of it. Sincerely Twilight Sparkle. No! Love Twilight Sparkle. He always falls for the 'love' Twilight Sparkle angle. Perfect!"
Twilight shook her face against the blackboard, smearing her cheeks with chalk.
"Perfectly bad," she corrected herself, falling back on her haunches. "Perfectly terrible!"
Running a hoof through her mane, she couldn't resist glancing over at the little model tower from the other day. It was Rarity's gift, both to Ponyville, and to herself: to her friend Twilight Sparkle. The Sparkle Observatory it was going to be called. It was going to be amazing when it was built, and it was all because of Rarity. Her friend. Her friend.
The alternative... the alternative was...
"Dear... Rarity... This will probably sound sort of funny, but bear with me, okay? Um, don't friends share all kinds of things? Like when you let me borrow your white dress? And that hat you liked? Or when I let you borrow my copy of Cantrip Collections, volume two? And Jem's Gems? And remember that time you checked out a copy of Foaley's Finders and Keepers? And you returned it twelve days late. Now that I think of it, you dog-eared pages in Cantrip Collections! I hate it when ponies do that! And Jem's Gems has a smudge on page sixty five that I know wasn't there before..."
Twilight's eyes shifted left to right, not sure how or where her thoughts had gotten derailed.
"Anyway! Friends let friends borrow stuff, right?"
She also made a mental note to see if Rarity had any other overdue library books.
"Friends totally do! So if you could just let me become Duchess and marry your coltfriend, just a little bit, I'd owe you big time. And - and - I'd renew your library card. For free. So: we good?"
Face met blackboard again with an unhealthy thwack.
"Dear Rarity. My family needs me to seize power in Canterlot. Hoof over the prettyboy and nopony gets hurt."
"Hey, Rarity, you know how this whole royal engagement thing has caused nothing but problems? Like with all these crazy mares coming after you? Well, what do you know? I've got the perfect way to fix that!"
"Do you remember... that time..." Twilight exhaled, softly, the memory crystallizing in her mind.
"I, uh - I could..." Twilight spoke up at the same time, just a little louder than Rarity's own musing. "I am part of the Terre Rare family so... maybe I could..."
Seeing her friends staring at her, Twilight blushed and suddenly found her hooves very interesting points of study. She pawed softly at the floor, swallowing as she tried to find a way to suggest the un-suggestible.
"You know," she muttered. "I could ask to take over the engagement instead... and just.. not go through with it?" She groaned, shaking her head in defeat. "No. No! that wouldn't work! Maybe-"
"It wouldn't," Rarity agreed, but put a hoof on her friend's upper leg in support. "But thank you for the thought, dear. Even if the rest of your family agreed to it, I am sure they would be insistent in taking this affair to it's conclusion."
Twilight nodded. "I know. I just... thought... there has to be something I can do!"
"If I was to be second to another mare, you would be the only one I would consider, Twilight." Rarity leaned down to touch horns with her close friend. "But there is another option left to take."
"Would you really be okay with it?" Twilight wondered, blowing chalk out of her face. "Could you really live with it? Could I?"
Closing her eyes, Twilight imagined approaching Celestia's throne in Canterlot, but not as a student and apprentice. Floating in the air before the Princess was a gleaming crown of platinum and iron and electrum suspended in a cascading rainbow of magic. She imagined the feel of it on her head, fitting snugly behind her horn. It was her crown. Just like Princess Celestia. She had a crown of her own and a place by her mentor's side, literally.
In her mind's eye, in that mental throne room, she caught a glimpse of a frowning stallion, watching the coronation with practiced impassivity. Like it was exactly what he had expected but never wanted.
For once, Owloysius was right.
"This isn't just about me, or Rarity, or what my family wants me to do," Twilight said, pulling herself away from the blackboard and taking in the mess that was her library. "I need to talk to somepony about this."
- - -
Twilight had barely left the library before an incessant knock on the door roused a certain owl - who really wished she had been let out to hunt for the night - to answer the summons. Her mistress having the occasional mental breakdown was, sadly, just part of the job. It did make annoying her with the hoot-gag more amusing, though.
Owloysius, unable to actually open the locked door, flew over to a nearby window and pecked loudly enough to be heard. She could see another pony in the dark, quite similar to her mammalian quadruped of an 'owner.' This other pony, on the verge of knocking at the library door a second time, noticed the sound and trotted closer to investigate.
"What's this? An owl? I didn't know she had a familiar."
"You. Bird. I'm talking about you."
"Look. I am really not in the mood for this. Where is Twilight Sparkle?!"
The mysterious pony groaned, burying his head between his hooves.