The Courtiers’ Game
Behind the fiercely guarded doors of the Canterlot throne room sat Nightmare Moon on her Obsidian Throne. Lamplight gleamed off of the polished surface of the purple-black seat. Smooth and glass-like, the Obsidian Throne was carved like a monolith jutting out of the floor, surrounded by circular platforms through which cut a flight of steps carpeted in wine red. It was a magnificent sight, towering high over all who would come to seek an audience with its occupant – the Empress of Equestria. She sat at ease on her throne, resting on cushions of the highest quality and comfort. To her left, on the podium below, was a smaller throne on which the Inquisitor lounged.
Before the Obsidian Throne, a semicircular meeting table seated two dozen or so high-ranking military officers, ministers, influential nobles, and assorted hangers-on such that they could all face the Empress and her Prime Minister. The meeting had been going on for twenty minutes now; the members of her Privy Council had been bickering over minor issues – tax-cuts for lands owned and rented by the Enlightened Way, and grants for building on such lands. Hierophant North Star and Duke Blueblood had spent the last ten minutes of their meeting laying out the proposal for her. The Empress was not an idiot; she had seen before they even began that the proposal would benefit the nobles who leased land to the Way – Blueblood’s constituency, of course – and increase the influence of the Way itself. The Hierophant could convince a great many nobles and townships to give her faction land and facilities if it meant keeping a few more bits in the local coffers.
Of course, Marshall Silverstar would fight tooth and hoof against the proposal. The Empress admired the stallion for his tenacity and fierce nature in a den of political vipers. A natural leader, he had become the voice of the common-blooded ministers and champion of what he called “Rose Q. Taxpayer”. The earth pony made no secret of his disdain for religion in general, but he seemed to hold a special grudge against North Star and her Cult Imperia.
“The expansion of Cult powers into every aspect of our society continues unabated,” Silverstar growled. He had the refreshing tendency to call things as they were. “Special privileges for Cult properties are just another step. Soon, the only way anypony will gain any advantage in this Empire is to join the Cult.”
“As you may have heard, Lord Marshall, the bill does not give privilege specifically to houses of worship for the Cult Imperia,” North Star made a grand gesture as she continued. “We all here follow the Way, as the Way is Perfection. Would it not be good and just to ensure that the Way – beneficial as it is – should flourish? And would it not be unfair to heavily tax the property of a non-profit organisation?”
“So we should have tax cuts for all Way-owned property, including buildings of a secular nature?”
“I believe that you’re now grasping at straws, Lord Marshall,” Duke Blueblood interjected. “The Way owns very few establishments of primarily irreligious nature – and these are usually homeless shelters, museums and libraries. I fear that you just cannot tolerate the privileges faith has, and its special place in the hearts of the public.”
“What I cannot tolerate, Your Grace, is the tendrils of the Cult that are seeping into the mainstream doctrines, and mainstream society.”
The Hierophant stood up, pointing dramatically at the military commander. “What we all should not tolerate is your flagrant disrespect for our beloved Empress!”
Heads turned at her outburst, first to her and then back to Silverstar. He hesitated and his eyes flicked to the Empress, who was doing her best to look completely impassive. She bobbed her muzzle in the tiniest fraction of a nod; he would have to tread carefully to avoid any hint of irreverence, but he’d offered her no insult she was aware of. That seemed to stiffen his resolve.
“And in what way have I disrespected the Empress?” he demanded. Nightmare Moon’s ears pricked forward with interest as the Hierophant prepared her volley.
“You scoff at the Cult Imperia, and you openly declare us to be, quote, ‘a gaggle of ramblers and insane sycophants’!” North Star’s tone grew more hysterical with each word, until she might as well have been delivering an impassioned sermon. “Your blasphemy and disregard for the truth is an ongoing affront to Her Holiness! It is her truth we spread, and her glory you ignore!”
The Empress blinked and rolled her eyes – checking that none of her Council saw. The usual, then. No charges she hadn’t heard a hundred times before from the zealot. Talking about me as if I wasn’t here seems more disrespectful, she thought grumpily. Giving a quiet sigh, she blotted the ensuing exchange of tirades from her hearing and turned to the Inquisitor. His impossibly dark eyes caught hers and he raised a knowing eyebrow at her. She gave him a small equally knowing grin. Silverstar and North Star both had explosive personalities, and now all bets were off. There was nothing for it but to let the argument burn itself out; if she stopped them at this point, they’d be sniping back and forth for the rest of the meeting instead of paying attention to the matters at hoof. North Star’s fanatical indignation didn’t even make for an entertaining argument, like Duke Blueblood or the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor gestured to the bottle of amontillado at his elbow, but she shook her head. He shrugged and sipped from his own goblet. The Empress turned back to the table. At least Duke Blueblood had, like a true gentlepony, remained aloof from the row.
I think this may be a new record for the shortest time between the gavel and the first personal insult. Nightmare Moon stifled a sigh. Sometimes she felt more like a school mistress with a class of rowdy foals than Empress of the known world.
A century ago, the Cult had begun as a small sect of the Way. Nightmare had basked in their reverence when it was new and exciting, and their worship of the alicorn as “She Who Stayed” was, in its way, touching. The Inquisitor hadn’t liked the idea, though, and had the courage to tell her so. In hindsight, she supposed it did seem somewhat unfair that she was lauded above her kin who were forced to move on from the mortal world, but at the time she had rebuffed him viciously.
With her visible support and acceptance, the Cult had grown powerful enough to attempt to add its own dogma to the doctrines of the entire religion. Like making her servants grovel, however, the veneration soon became tiresome. Her objections only deflected their adoration such that they referred to her as if their Empress and the black alicorn on the throne were two different people.
Nightmare was jolted out of her thoughts by a sudden, sharp bang. The Inquisitor, it seemed, had finally had enough of the squabble and was smacking his hoof against the dais for silence.
“There will be order in the presence of Her Majesty and the Council!” he demanded. Though his words barely rose above his usual speaking voice, the firm tones cut through the din like a warm knife through butter. Teeth clacked together instantly, biting off arguments in mid-word as all eyes turned toward to pale grey pony. “Now, I think I have heard enough, and I would like – at Her Majesty’s pleasure – to move this along.” He looked at the Empress, his expression one of boredom.
“Yes,” she nodded. “I believe it would be best if we proceed to the voting on the matter. All in favour of the proposed Religious Properties Tax Reform Act raise your hoof.”
Thirteen hooves were raised. Most were nobility in Blueblood’s orbit, or those officials under the influence of North Star. Others were, Nightmare Moon recognised, the usual fence-sitters and aspiring Marechiavellis who attempted to play at the game of thrones despite having too little power to gather their own cliques of hoof-lickers. These were the swing votes that the Marshall, the Duke, the Hierophant and the Inquisitor often fought over.
“And those against?”
The Empress counted eleven. These were Silverstar’s lot – selected representatives from guilds and hard-working cities – as well as the Inquisitor’s puppets. The Inquisitor also had his hoof raised, which counted for two votes.
“A tie,” Nightmare declared. “As the decision is ultimately down to me, I shall take into account your arguments and retire to consider my decision. My choice shall be submitted to you all in a memorandum. For now, Council is adjourned. Good night, my lords and ladies.”
All stood up, save for the Empress and her Prime Minister, and bowed to the throne. Nightmare Moon accepted the gesture with her own shallow nod, and they turned and left in swift succession. Servants poured in, quickly busying themselves with the table and chairs. The throne room was to be cleared quickly. As they hauled them out of the room, Nightmare Moon relaxed, breathing out a sigh that she had been holding in for far too long.
“Troubled, Empress?” the Inquisitor asked, smiling his usual enigmatic smile, his voice strangely comforting. “Perhaps you would like me to pour you a glass of sherry?” He gestured with the bottle of wine.
“I swear, Inquisitor, you try to get me to drink far too often,” she grinned slyly. “Do you aim to make me drunk so you can take advantage of me?”
The Inquisitor didn’t reply. He simply blinked, his face remaining still and fixed in a small, polite grin.
“That was a joke, Inquisitor,” she sighed.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he nodded, brushing the attempt at humour away. “Do you want some tea instead? I’ll summon a servant for you.”
“Actually, Inquisitor, I think I’ll take some time for myself. Our drinks will have to wait for later,” she stood up and stretched, spreading her wings and giving them a couple of limbering flaps. “Before I go, do you have anything to report?”
The Inquisitor shrugged. “The Gallopfreyans are still complaining that they can’t have an ‘Empire on which the sun never sets’. I don’t think the Eclipse counts for them.”
Nightmare Moon glowered at him.
“That was a joke, Empress,” his smile widened ever so slightly.
“Good night, Inquisitor.”
The black alicorn left her prime minister sipping at his wine. She could feel his dark eyes on her as she went, but suppressed an involuntary shiver until she was out of his sight.
Outside the throne room, it was somewhat warmer and brighter. Lit chandeliers poured warm light down the cool gray walls and across marble tiles only a few shades above midnight blue. The kiss of golden light on the dusk-gray marble brought to mind ancient memories of her sister’s - brought to mind candle light on dark marble and nothing more. Glancing around, she found nopony but her ever-faithful Imperial Guard, standing like fierce metal statues. So dedicated they were, with the patience of dragons and the loyalty of dogs.
Exclusively male, she noted, not for the first time. For some reason, the mares of her country were largely disinclined toward military service. Silverstar often complained about it, and there was always planning for a recruitment campaign aimed at mares. This was always quashed by North Star and Blueblood. Nightmare still had no idea what their motivations behind that particular move were.
The Empress passed through a pair of doors that led to a balcony. The supernatural warmth of the Bright Moon filled her bones with soothing heat. It was nothing like the embrace of the sun, but it was hers and it was enough. She watched the gardeners go about their nightly business for a time, fighting back the advancing armies of weeds and lichen and quelling the unruly branches and leaves that sprouted from the trees. The bluebells were in full bloom, as were the lilies and lotuses that floated daintily on the surface of the moat.
Breathing in the crisp air of the night, Nightmare Moon spread her wings to the faint breeze. She was going to enjoy this flight; she so rarely had the chance to. The prospect of dashing through the clouds and gliding so far up in the heavens that the cities of the world below her looked like stars always excited her. She loved flying. Stretching her wings out and bending her knees, she tensed to leap into the star-studded sky.
“Your Majesty!” a sophisticated voice called out.
Oh, Ancestors! What now? the Empress thought grumpily. She folded her wings and resumed a dignified posture as she fought down a scowl that might well reduce her visitor to dust. He wore his sash proudly, with each medal and sigil polished to shine like the stars that hung above them. He was handsome, no one could say otherwise, but so dreadfully arrogant. That little goatee of his always seemed to be in such an immaculate state that it would have taken a dozen servants to get it that way. It probably did. “Yes, Duke Blueblood?”
“I have heard of the most recent addition to your illustrious household,” he started. “A student, one Twilight Sparkle.”
Of course, pester me about this just when I’m about to enjoy myself. “Yes, I have decided to take an especially gifted young unicorn into my fold. Is there anything you would particularly like to talk about in regards to my decision?”
“No, Your Majesty,” the Duke quickly lowered his head in an overly ostentatious display of humility. “I simply did not know that you were taking in students. If a may suggest–”
“Only the one, Duke Blueblood. I am only tutoring the one unicorn.”
Blueblood flinched at this, but came back, still determined. “There are also many other fine potential candidates for apprenticeship under Your Majesty. Gifted, worthy unicorns such as Skygold of the House of Hoofenzollern, or even my son, Prince Blueblood the Tenth.”
“I am afraid that the position is already filled by Twilight Sparkle. I only really have time for one student,” the Empress stated, her voice almost breaking its regally stoic tone as she began to lose patience with the unicorn prince.
Blueblood did his best to hide an appalled look, but Nightmare Moon knew him well enough to see it as clear as the craters of the moon. “Your Majesty, I simply must protest your decision. The idea that a commoner – an unknown orphan no less – has been selected as your protégée over more noble and eligible candidates is offensive to many of the aristocratic families.”
Nightmare Moon’s icy, dragon-like eyes locked with the Duke’s blue ones in silent warning. He backed away from her glower. She stepped forward to fill in the gap, and narrowed her eyes at him. Blueblood nervously glanced at the doors to the palace halls before returning his eyes to the Empress and did his best to put on a dignified face.
“Then let them be offended, Blueblood,” her voice was almost a growl. “But don’t presume to argue with me over my decision. I see in Twilight Sparkle all the qualities that so-called ‘eligible candidates’ like your son lack. The foremost are ability and dedication. Manners also come to mind, which your son has almost entirely forgotten. Now leave me be, Blueblood. Your interruption has already eaten into my precious spare time.”
With that, the Empress turned and launched into the air with a powerful spring from her hind legs. As she soared up into the black night sky, the alicorn smiled at the feeling of the wind in her hair. The shaken unicorn shrunk rapidly behind her, then finally vanished beneath a layer of clouds.
Sorry this didn’t get to you yesternight. Miss Loch’s been making me work my grounding off, so I’ve had hardly any time to write. But anyway, I’m glad that you’re settled in. That gigantic library is probably the perfect place for you – I bet you’ve been in it most of the time. The Empress seems nice, although I always saw her as kind of scary. I guess first impressions aren’t always the right ones.
It’s pretty dull over here without you. Those three who were always teasing you have stopped picking on everypony. One of the earth ponies ran away, but he was picked up by the Canterlot Watch, and the other came to me to give his apology to you. That was really awkward. Blitz hasn’t done or said much lately. He’s still horrible to everypony, but he doesn’t have his lackeys to back him up anymore. He keeps giving me a really bad look whenever I see him.
Miss Loch’s decided not to assign me another roommate after all. Which is good, I think. I don’t know what I’d do if it was somepony who was really hyperactive, or really stuck-up. It’s been pretty weird having nopony else in my room though, but sometimes I can definitely appreciate the privacy.
I hope you’re having a good time over there. I bet you can’t wait for the Empress to start teaching you things, huh? Just stay away from those Overwatch ponies, and even though that Inquisitor guy sounds all right, I still would watch out if I were you. Be careful over there.
Your friend, Orion
Twilight smiled and put the letter back on the bedside table. Sitting up in her oversized bed, she turned to face the rest of her room. Even though only a few nights had passed, books already scattered the room like a small mountain range. The filly spent most of her time either in the library or in her room, joyfully digging through the almost infinite variety of volumes that were available to her.
The library itself was gargantuan, with several floors and hundreds of bookcases. Thousands upon thousands of books, old and new, lined the shelves and her choices were never limited like they had been back at the orphanage. Well, almost never, she thought begrudgingly. Certain sections of the library were locked and the head librarian even said some of the more dangerous books were kept in vaults. This only piqued the foal’s interest, but she knew that she shouldn’t anger the Empress by trying to break into the palace’s vaults in search of a few dusty tomes.
Twilight slid off of her bed and stretched. She had the whole summer before the Academy reopened, and this was time that could be spent doing whatever she wanted. Right there and then, Twilight wanted to explore beyond the Royal Apartments. She grinned at the thought of what she might find in the massive complex, her thoughts wandering even to the idea of stumbling upon an enormous room filled with all the treasury’s valuables, glittering like a golden bejewelled sea.
As her stomach gave a soft, quiet rumble, Twilight quickly amended her plan with a side mission. Operation Snack is a go, she thought. Maybe I can get some exploring done on the way to the kitchens. Twilight strode boldly out of her room and past the doors of the Royal Apartments into the more public body of the palace. Already she saw servants wandering to and fro, tending to any number of tasks. Twilight briefly considered following one of them into the maze of service corridors where an army of menials maintained the palace behind the scenes, but dismissed it with a mental shrug. While it would be interesting, she was in search of wonders tonight. And food, her stomach reminded her.
The halls seemed to form a labyrinth, turning into spiralling staircases or meandering and splitting off into junctions. There were so many rooms, and Twilight had no idea what even a few of them were for. Curiosity finally taking a firm hold over her, she stopped at one of the doors and peeked inside. It was an office, spectacularly furnished, but merely an office nonetheless. Disappointed, she tried another door further along. This one was a storage cupboard. Glaring as if the door had personally offended her, Twilight flew into a frustrated flurry along the corridor, checking every door she came across. To her increasing irritation, they were all either offices or storage rooms. The little filly stomped her hoof and moved to intercept a passing servant for answers.
“Excuse me, but what part of the palace is this?” she asked.
“These are the clerks’ offices,” the mare said in a brisk, quick voice. The servant’s sense of urgency was lost on the filly.
“Why would the palace need clerks?”
“Oh, you know,” the mare waved a hoof dismissively. “Taxes, number crunching, addition – all that kind of tediousness. The government’s centred in the palace, after all.”
The pony brushed past Twilight and walked at a doubled pace down the hall. Twilight thought it best to leave it at that, until her stomach growled a greedy note at her.
“Excuse me, miss?” she began.
The mare whirled around, evidently irritated by the interruption. “Stars above! What do you want?”
“I just wanted to know where the kitchens were,” Twilight lowered her head and looked at the floor, biting her lip. “I’m kind of hungry…”
“Head towards the dining area – near the palace residences – and you’ll find them around that area, towards the back,” the servant instructed firmly, though she made the effort to soften her voice.
Twilight gave her thanks and a smile before she turned back the way she had come from and scampered towards the kitchens. Emerging back into a slightly larger thoroughfare, she hesitated, glancing left and right. Toward the back, she said. Which way is the back? The filly took a chance, heading to the left, following the hall through two more turns and down a stairwell. Whenever she was presented with a choice of paths, she chose the one that her meager sense of direction suggested would lead toward the residential areas. Her sense of unease grew each time a hall curled back on itself or forced her into a stairway, and she quickly found herself entirely alone in the silent corridors. She knew she was lost again when she came upon a dim corridor that ended in a blank wall.
The little filly’s gaze drifted to the walls, where paintings hung, gathering dust. The whole area looked like it had not been occupied for some time, and the silence seemed nearly unnatural. Twilight couldn’t help feeling that there was something off about the place. It was as if the quiet and the lack of life were somehow deliberate. Glancing from one painting to another, Twilight saw the grim faces of mares and stallions that were, in all cases, quite unremarkable. Their eyes unnerved her, though. They seemed to track her every move, following her actions like a predator watching prey. Without apparent cause, a chill suddenly ran up Twilight’s back. She really didn’t want to be down this corridor. Eyes darting nervously around her, she had only taken two steps back when she heard a faint but soul-chilling noise, like the dying, whispery echoes of a ghostly scream. The filly turned and bolted, slamming right into somepony’s chest.
Twilight fell and landed back on her rump. Shaking her head, she looked up and her eyes met with the cold, dark eyes of the Inquisitor. His brow was furrowed in bemusement at her, but he didn’t seem cross. His face, in fact, was relaxed and passive. Nonetheless, the darkness of his gaze sent shivers down Twilights spine and she inched away instinctively.
“Twilight, what are you doing here?” he gave a soft wry smile, which made the lavender unicorn relax a bit. “This area is forbidden.”
“I… I was just… lost,” she stuttered pathetically. “I’m trying to get to the residential wing.”
The Inquisitor glanced momentarily at the end of the corridor behind her before raising an eyebrow at the foal. “Let’s get you on the proper path then. Follow me.”
Twilight obeyed without a sound. The Inquisitor kept her close as he navigated the winding hallways. Servants, staff and even what looked like nobility gave him a respectfully wide berth and bowed their heads as he passed. He kept his eyes front and paid them no heed. Eventually, he led the young filly to the residential wing.
“And here we are, Little Spark,” he said, grinning boyishly at the nickname.
She smiled back and said her thanks as he wheeled around and left in the direction they had just come from. The area Twilight now found herself in was not far from the entrance to the Royal Apartments, which veered off into another entirely separate wing of the palace. These were the rooms of government officials and household members who had the privilege of living in the palace. The faint scent of baking bread drew a fresh round of complaints from the lavender unicorn’s empty stomach, and before long, she had followed her nose straight to the dining room, and then to the kitchens.
Inside, the air was permeated with the smells of herbs, vegetables and spices of all kinds. The scents filled her every breath and her stomach growled a fiercer desire for food. Pots and pans and an assortment of knives and other utensils lined the counters. Steam leapt from pots as the sounds of whistling and bubbling and clattering attempted to rebuff the din of the chefs’ strident voices. She licked her lips and took a step forward, but was stopped almost immediately by a stern-looking stallion.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, his voice giving the definite indication that he was from somewhere in Gallopfrey, Trottingham perhaps. “Little fillies aren’t allowed in the kitchen. In fact, I don’t think little fillies are allowed in the palace.”
“I… I live here,” she said. “In the Royal Apartments.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Sorry, kiddo, I’m not buying that rubbish.”
Twilight gulped and backed away. Perhaps if she left now, she wouldn’t get into trouble? The chef might call for the guards to escort her out, or he might even tell the Empress. Twilight could imagine the midnight-coated alicorn towering over her, with a look that said ‘perhaps I made a mistake bringing you here’. She bit her lip.
“Chef Ram Sea, sir, we’ve got a problem with the salts,” a mare appeared next to the Gallopfreyan chef.
The stallion groaned. “What happened?”
“Uh, they’re not here yet. There’s been a mix-up with the suppliers and–”
“Well that’s just bloody perfect!” he threw his hooves in the air. “Stars above, Salt Wind! How am I supposed to get anything done without the damned salt?”
“I don’t know sir, I…” the mare finally noticed Twilight. “Who’s this?”
“Some girl, don’t know her name,” he muttered. “But she shouldn’t be here.”
Salt Wind furrowed her brow, studying her momentarily. Vague recognition came to her face. Turning to Ram Sea, she gave him a nervous, almost frantic gesture for silence. She turned back to Twilight, smiling pleasantly at the little filly.
“I’m so sorry about that, dear. Do you mind telling me your name, sweetie?” she asked in an overly-friendly voice that reminded Twilight all too much of the staff at the foster home.
“Twilight Sparkle,” the purple foal replied.
The mare gave a gasp, her eyes suddenly widening in realisation. Salt Wind pulled the stallion aside.
“Chef Sea, I think this is the filly the Empress brought in a few nights ago,” she told him in a voice that, though hushed, Twilight could still hear. “I heard the maids talking about a purple little pony called Twilight Sparkle, but I don’t know what she’s supposed to be.”
“I’m the Empress’s personal student,” Twilight offered.
At this, the chef jolted upright, shock plain on his face, and stared at the filly. His gaze flicked to the mare every now and then to gauge her own reaction. She remained calm, even somewhat smug. He gave a short, apologetic nod of a bow to Twilight.
“Sorry, Miss Sparkle – I didn’t realise,” he pressed his lips tightly together. “Anything you ask, I’ll be happy to help.”
“Um, it’s all right. I was just here to look for a snack,” Twilight replied, feeling more than a little awkward. She was taken completely off guard by the sudden shift in the cook’s attitude. Was she really this important that she would get special treatment?
The stallion stepped forward nervously. “What can I get for you?”
“Oh…” Twilight scuffed her hoof against the floor, uncertain. Back at the foster home, the best she could have hoped for was an apple or banana from the fruit bowl in the dining room, but here she had the whole pantry available to her. “Can I have some bread and cheese, please? Oh, and some grapes would be nice. Some cucumber and celery too.”
He nodded and sent Salt Wind cantering off to the food storage. She returned a few minutes later – thankfully breaking the awkward silence that had developed between Twilight and Chef Sea. She carried a bowl filled with an assortment of breads, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Salt smiled at Twilight as she passed her the bowl. Oh my stars! she thought excitedly. That actually worked!
“And please can I have a cookie too?” she asked sweetly, deciding to press her luck. To her surprise, the mare nodded and disappeared across the kitchen, soon returning with a warm chocolate-chip cookie. Twilight took it graciously and wolfed it down.
“Don’t mind Head Chef Ram Sea,” she said cheerfully. “He’s just always under a lot of pressure, what with cooking for the most important and powerful people in Equestria.”
“Thank you,” Twilight beamed, before looking at Chef Sea. “Both of you.”
After the cooks gave her directions, she left them, the stallion looking much more relaxed. Her booty in hoof, she traversed the sinuous corridors and into the palace gardens. Willows seemed to be the dominant feature of this part of the gardens, and wide patches of bluebells grew next to the trees. The wooded area was quiet, save for the light singing of birds and the faint rustle of the leaves in the wind. The drooping branches of the willows rocked gently as the breeze blew through them. It was so peaceful, and the flowers were so beautiful. The ground was somehow very soft, whether through the tireless work of master groundskeepers or through magic Twilight was not sure. The unicorn lay down with her legs curled underneath her body, and set the bowl to her side. Smiling contentedly, Twilight picked up her food with magic and began to eat. Bread crumbs dusted her coat as she bit down on a cheese-covered loaf, but she paid no heed – she was far too hungry to care. The filly didn’t even notice when a set of hooves stomped towards her.
“Ugh, I would have thought even a servant girl would have at least some control when eating.”
Twilight paused with a string of cheese hanging down her chin and looked up. In front of her was a young, handsome unicorn colt. He was around as old as Orion was, perhaps older, and had an immaculately kept coat of pure white. Golden tresses fell down to his shoulders and his fringe was swept neatly across his forehead. His eyes were brilliant blue orbs that stared down at her in a manner that reminded Twilight all too much of Duke Blueblood. Glancing at his cutie mark, Twilight saw a gold and silver compass rose.
“Excuse me?” was all she managed.
“You are getting crumbs all over your coat,” the unicorn snorted. “Brush yourself off and come with me.”
A number of retorts, questions and answers came to mind, but Twilight looked wistfully at her food-filled bowl and moaned, “But I haven’t finished my lunch.”
“Too bad, now come along,” the colt gave no indication of waiting for her response, instead simply turned around and led the way.
Twilight harrumphed. Who does he think he is, ordering me around? She had half a mind to ignore the colt, but then her thoughts turned to the Empress. After all, she was a guest in the palace, and this pony had an air of importance around him. Perhaps it would be best to just follow him and see what he wants? That way I won’t accidentally offend the Empress. Sighing with indignation, the purple unicorn picked up her bowl and cantered after the colt.
He led her back into the castle and to the reception hall, where Twilight had been introduced to courtiers earlier in the week. Despite being nowhere near as bustling as it had been on that night, there were still plenty of ponies around, whether they were servants or government officials. The unicorn trotted over to a spot in the corner where there was a circular stone rococo table surrounded by plump elegant cushions. He stood there, looking at her expectantly. Curious, Twilight inspected the spot, seeing what was bothering him. Nothing out of the ordinary was there.
“Well?” he asked. She just stared at him.
“Are you not going to do anything about this travesty?” he asked.
As a demonstration, the unicorn put a hoof on one side of the table and pressed down. There was a distinct wobble accompanied by an irritating sound of stone table leg clapping on marble floor. He repeated the action several times, driving home the point. Twilight could only stare at him dumbfounded.
“This is what you dragged me out here for?” she asked, angrily setting her bowl of food down on the table. “A dumb wobbly table?”
“Well, yes,” he replied, as if it was obvious. “I am a prince, and so I cannot sit at a deficient table now, can I?”
“But there are loads of tables all over!” the lavender filly gestured to the many tables that were indeed scattered around the hall.
“But this is my favourite spot,” the prince replied. “I always sit here for lunch when Papa needs the dining room for meetings.”
“Why not just drag another table over here then?”
He looked appalled at the suggestion. “A prince should not exert himself! That is servants’ work.”
“Okay, then why not get a servant?” she asked.
“All of the servants said they were too busy. The nerve!” he sniffed. “Besides, you are a servant, even if you are a foal.”
“I’m not a servant,” Twilight stated stiffly.
“You’re not?” the white unicorn rubbed his chin in thought. “Well then, you must be the daughter of a servant or a clerk. Certainly not the foal of a noble house – no proper Lady would eat like you did outside.”
Twilight’s jaws clenched at his remarks. “I don’t have any parents.”
The prince’s attitude immediately changed. Where there once was condescending negligence, there was now shock. He took a step back, staring at her with surprised eyes.
“You’re an orphan!” he declared. “A pauper storming the palace to steal food, or money! Stay away from me, thief! These cufflinks are worth hundreds of bits!”
Much to Twilight’s chagrin, his wailing had cut straight through the chatter of ponies in the hall and now all eyes were on her and the colt. She felt heat coming unbidden to her face at the attention and the circumstance in which she was receiving it. She needed to get the situation under control, and fast.
“No, please, you don’t understand,” Twilight stepped forward. A poor move.
“Ah! I said stay back! Guards! Guards!” he lowered his head. “I have a horn and a second-place position in the Fencing Tournament and I’m not afraid to use it!”
Twilight backed away and looked to the crowd helplessly. They eyed her with interest, or suspicion. Many were quietly laughing to themselves and their fellows. She felt even hotter than before. Twilight hated it when everypony paid attention to her. Just then, a stallion stepped out of the midst of the gathered ponies. He had a dark brown coat and a grey mane – likely gone that colour from him being well into his middle ages. Sprouting from his face were bushy but tamed sideburns and a glorious bristling moustache that looked as though it would leap off his upper lip at any moment and wrestle the nearest bear. The stallion wore medals of valour on a deep blue vest that was obviously military in design and a sword – noticeably lacking in opulence – fastened to his side.
“What’s going on here, Prince Blueblood?” he asked.
“I found this filly on the grounds!” the prince pointed an accusatory hoof at Twilight. “She’s an orphan off the streets and she’s trying to break into the palace!”
Twilight felt herself shrink as the earth pony stallion turned to inspect her. After several moments of taking her in, he smiled cheerfully.
“You must be Twilight Sparkle. I’ve heard so much about you. Is Blueblood disturbing you?”
“Marshal, what are you doing? Arrest her!” Prince Blueblood was aghast.
“Well, sort of,” Twilight glanced at the now seething unicorn noblecolt and then to her bowl. “I was having lunch outside.”
“Well, I’m sorry that he’s wasted your time,” the Marshal said. “He does that quite often.” This received a great many nods from the crowd.
“Marshal,” the colt said, now keeping his hysterics in check. “Can we please at least escort her off the palace grounds?”
The Marshal turned to the princeling and furrowed his brow, his smile dropping. “I’m afraid we can’t do that. She lives here.”
“What?” Blueblood was incredulous. “Why did this orphan foal get to live at the palace?”
“Because she is my student,” a new voice was carried through the room.
Everypony turned to see the tall and proud form of the Empress gliding through the assembled mass, parting it as they stepped away to give her space. All bowed at her arrival, save for Prince Blueblood. The white unicorn gave a high-pitched squeak and froze, locked in an awkwardly hunched position. Beads of fearful sweat now began to pour down his face. She looked down at Twilight, smiling warmly, before turning her gaze to the white unicorn colt.
“I think, Prince Blueblood,” she began, her tone carefully strict. “That it would be best if you got to know a new pony first before you jump to a conclusion.”
The prince kept his head bowed, but Twilight could clearly see his cheeks redden in embarrassment. The Empress looked around her, stern gaze quickly getting the message through to the crowd for them to disperse and return to their former activities. Blueblood remained in place to risk the Empress’s wrath until formally dismissed.
“Thank you for intervening here, Marshal Silverstar,” the Empress said.
“No need to thank me, Your Majesty,” he bowed again, before turning to the prince. “I think you can get back to your father, Blueblood. You’ve more than likely caused him enough embarrassment for one night.”
The unicorn carefully slunk away, head hanging low. Silverstar bowed to the Queen of the Night and marched more than walked away, his posture rigid and dignified and his steps like perfect clockwork. Twilight and the Empress were left alone in the corner of the room – the courtiers giving them both a respectfully wide berth. Nightmare Moon cast her attention back to Twilight, her face brightening.
“I was thinking, Twilight, that we could begin your first lesson in unicorn magic tonight,” she mused. “What do you think?”
Twilight could barely contain her excitement. “That would be great!” she cried, a wide grin quickly growing across her face. Remembering where she was and who she was talking to, the filly continued in a more reserved manner. “I would love to learn from you tonight, Your Majesty.”
The alicorn smiled softly at the little filly, who was looking at her with something akin to giddy adoration. “Follow me, then, Twilight,” Nightmare Moon started on her way towards the exit. “There’s a very nice private place in the willow groves I think you might enjoy.”
Questions, Comments, Concerns and Criticisms are welcome!
Written by Municipal Engines, Assisted and Edited by LordOfTheWrongs