The hospital’s interior was a stark contrast to the drab, almost lifeless exterior. Every square inch had been washed, sterilized, and then re-dirtied just so it could be washed even finer the next time. All the furniture in the front lobby was made of the finest woods and metals that government funding could afford, excusing the bits the administration was scrapping off the top to buy their way into high society. And then there were the ponies, no doubt some of the finest medical workers in Equestria when they weren’t cowering in fear from their nighttime master’s visit.
It didn’t take long to reach the Children’s Wing. Sure enough, the entire area had apparently been recently renovated, with a few walls still sticky from the wet paint. The atmosphere was also far more relaxed compared to the suffocating fear of the front entrance and lobby, and Luna and Nurse Ward were able to wander the halls far more freely and comfortably than before.
“As you can see, we have completely redone the entire wing,” said the nurse. She motioned a hoof towards one of the nearby waiting benches, all of them painted a dull green. “These seats alone cost over five hundred bits apiece. We’re still waiting for them to be painted.”
“Understandable,” Luna muttered.
The two continued onwards, hooves clopping down the tiled halls of the hospital, until they reached an unoccupied examination room. Like everything else in the ward so far, the entire interior had been freshly washed, waxed, and refilled with the latest in medical equipment. Luna was especially proud of the sight of a glass jar full of lollipops.
“Everything in this room has been only recently purchased and installed,” continued Nurse Ward. She motioned towards the nearby examination table, a flat piece of sterilized steel laying atop four sturdy metal legs. “I mean, can you imagine how much something like this cost?”
Luna eyed the table, but didn’t find it all that impressive. Then again, after a jar full of suckers, anything would pale in comparison. The princess slowly turned to the nurse, a look of resigned frustration on her face. “Miss Ward, I’m afraid I’m at a loss here. Your letter asked me to come and perform an inspection of your remodeling work, but so far nothing seems particularly revolutionary. Is there anything else?”
Nurse Ward sighed. “Well…we did want you to visit some of the patients here today. That is, we were…”
Luna groaned, mentally facehoofing herself for her stupidity. “You didn’t want me originally, did you? You wanted Princess Celestia.”
Ward took a few steps back, nodding nervously. “Um…yes?”
“Then why did your letter specifically address my office?”
“Well…when everypony learned that Princess Celestia had disappeared, well, the children were so terrified that something terrible had happened. You seemed like the perfect pony to ask. That, and…we wanted a princess to come here for so long.”
Now Luna was officially confused. “Wait…you mean my sister never responded to your requests? But, this would appear to be the perfect activity for someone such as her.”
Nurse Ward motioned towards a large set of double doors at the end of the hall, apparently some kind of assembly room. The two ponies began walking down the hall, continuing their conversation as they did so. “We sent her so many letters over the years, but we never heard a thing back. Then again, I’m sure Princess Celestia is always so busy.”
Luna smiled. “That she is. Do you remember when you last sent a request? I might be able to tell you why she cancelled.”
Nurse Ward was thoughtful for a few moments before answering. “A little less than two weeks ago, I believe.”
Luna stopped dead in her tracks. She knew what had happened two weeks ago: her sister had pasted dried lumps of oatmeal to the night princess’ face, painted them blue, and convinced her that she had a fatal disease. Celestia was busy, certainly, but she was apparently not too busy to spend time tormenting her younger sister. The princess visibly grit her teeth as the thoughts spilled through her mind. “She was working on a pet project of hers. That is all I know.”
The two stopped short of the door, the nurse pony looking more than a little nervous. “A-Are you ready, your Highness?”
Luna’s face was cold and serene, not betraying the growing fear and concern welling up inside of her. “I suppose this is my first audience in this capacity. Care to fill me in on what is going on?”
Nurse Ward put a hoof to her chin, trying to think how to best inform the princess. “Well, we’ve never had a princess come here before, but I think we have everything set just right. The children are already waiting.”
“Ah, the inspection was just a diversion to buy time, then?”
Nurse Ward nodded nervously, secretly afraid she was about to find herself on the far side of the moon. “Well, yes. It also gave the press agents enough time to interview a few of the children, just to get an early view on how they see you and all.”
“And…what were the results of that interview?”
The Nurse shrugged. “About half the children they asked said you were going to gobble them up, and the other half were sad you weren’t Princess Celestia.”
Luna groaned and buried her face in one hoof. That is not what I needed right now. “Tell me, what am I supposed to do?”
“Like I said, you are the first princess we’ve had visits, so we had no real precedent to follow. So we set things up like when Sapphire Shores visited: you speak to the children for a while, get to know them better, then read from a selection of our donated books.”
“So this is actually a glorified storytime hour?”
Nurse Ward shivered slightly, turning her eyes away from the princess. “Ergh….let’s begin!”
And with that, the pony pushed her hooves against both doors, revealing dozens of tiny little eyes, all of them focused on the blue alicorn. There were ponies from all three races, although, like most things in Canterlot, a majority were unicorns. Standing next to the doors were a collection of reporters from the various newspapers, from the Equestria Daily to the Manehatten Times, and even a reporter from the Hoofington Post.
Nurse Ward cleared her throat before continuing. “My little ponies, we have a very special guest today. Please give a warm round of applause to…Princess Luna!”
The room exploded into a cacophony of half-hearted stomps, save for the ponies who couldn’t use their legs or were too weak to make any real noise. Luna gave a nervous smile and waved back. This was a mistake…
Twilight’s friends gathered one by one by the palace gates.
Applejack, being the most accustomed to waking up well before sunrise, was the first to be ready to go. It didn’t take long for Rainbow Dash to join her, eager to get away before Twilight got any crazy ideas about turning them into fillies again or the like. Fluttershy was next, albeit more out of a desire to get back to her animal charges than anything else. After a few minutes, Pinkie bounded up to the gates, a doggy bag of sugary treats and party decorations wrapped in her mouth.
Rarity and Spike were the last to join the group. The former was her usual fabulous self, her mane and coat’s natural shininess augmented by the royal shampoos and perfumes only the princesses and guests at Canterlot Castle were entitled to receive. The later was still scarfing down some of the old gemstones he had left behind when he and Twilight first went to Ponyville. He had tried offering them to his beloved first, but for some reason, Rarity didn’t find chipped, cracked opals to be worth much.
“It’s about time you got here!” Rainbow grumped. “Where’s Twilight?”
Spike shrugged between gems. “Last I saw her, she said she was going out to talk to somepony. Something about maybe being able to help the princess.”
“Do you really think we should be leaving?” asked Fluttershy. “I mean, the princess is still in trouble.”
Applejack gave the pegasus a reassuring pat on the back. “Don’t ya’ll worry ’bout nothin’. We’ve got ta brightest unicorn in Equestria on ta case. And besides, if Twilight needs our help, we’re all just ah hoot and ah holler away!”
As if following some cosmic cue, Twilight came galloping up to the gate. She barely managed to slow to a walk before slamming into her waiting friends. The others watched in shock as the purple unicorn panted and wheezed, her mane and tail a disheveled mess from the wind. Applejack was the first one to muster enough strength to speak. “Is-Is somethin’ wrong, Twi?”
Twilight waited a few more seconds, long enough for her lungs to start working. She may have been a fifth place sprinter, but the bookworm was far from a champion athlete. “I…I need to talk to Pinkie. It’s important!”
Everypony’s eyes turned to Pinkie Pie. The pink Earth pony carefully set down her doggy bag before responding. “Sure thing, Twilight! What’s up?”
Twilight’s eyes narrowed. “I think you already know.”
Pinkie stared at her incredulously, even cocking her head slightly. “Know what?”
“Pinkie…does the name ‘Kuchen’ mean anything to you?”
For the briefest of moments, Twilight could see something change in Pinkie. The moment the name left her lips, the pink pony’s mane and tail seemed to flatten ever-so-much, as if a balloon had sprung a leak. And then, just as quickly, her puffy hair returned to its natural, more chaotic flare. “Ku-what now?”
Twilight groaned. “Pinkie, please don’t lie to me right now. I REALLY need you to tell me the truth.”
Spike smacked himself across the forehead, emitting a frustrated groan as he did so. “Twilight, I thought we were all done with this junk.”
The unicorn’s eye twitched as she turned to face her assistant. “Junk?”
“Ya know, the whole ‘solvin’ Pinkie Sense’ thing yer so worried about?” Applejack added. “Ah mean, I understand yer all book-learned an’ stuff, but ya gotta accept that-”
“THIS ISN’T ABOUT PINKIE SENSE! IT’S ABOUT PINKIE NOT TELLING ME EVERYTHING SHE KNOWS ABOUT THE PRINCESS’ CONDITION!”
Everypony took more than a few steps away from their friend. Twilight’s condition was falling apart faster than anypony had dared think possible. Even the raging unicorn herself was shocked at how labored her breathing had become, or how her mind seemed to turn and rage against itself as she tried to piece together a decent explanation for why she was so intent on proving Pinkie’s connection to all this. Pinkie, meanwhile, was starting to nervously twitch and shudder under Twilight’s intense scrutiny.
Rarity was the first pony to find the courage to speak. “Twilight, I think you’re letting the current situation get to your head. You really need to relax.”
“Relax?” Twilight asked. “I don’t have time to relax! Princess Celestia is depending on me to find a cure, and so far, Pinkie seems to know more about this spell than I do!”
“Oh please, Twi!” Pinkie’s laugh was getting more and more nervous, almost reverting to a deep, fearful stutter. “I’m an Earth pony, remember? I’m not a fancy-pants unicorn like you! I mean, how would I know the first thing about magic?”
“Come to think of it, you did know the Elements wouldn’t work,” said Fluttershy.
Pinkie’s eyes slowly shifted towards the yellow pegasus. “Oh…that. Well, it was my…Pinkie Sense!”
“You have a Pinkie Sense for ‘The Elements of Harmony won’t cure Princess Celestia and will instead make things worse?’” Rainbow Dash asked incredulously.
The pony shrunk back on her haunches. “Well…Of course I do! I have a Pinkie Sense for everything, silly filly!”
The rest of the ponies (plus dragon) shared bewildered, untrusting glances. “Pinkie, ah don’t mean ta call ya’ll a liar, but that’s a tad hard ta swallow.”
If Pinkie Pie was sweating before, she was now leaking a small lake from her sweat glands. “I…I mean…Look girls, I know it’s a lot to take in, but please believe me. I’m telling the truth, I swear! No, I Pinkie Pie Swear!”
“And I know you were lying about the newspaper!” said Twilight. “The morning edition of the Equestria Daily never mentioned the Arcanus E Draconus! In fact, hardly anypony knows that book even exists!”
“Well…that was…” Pinkie was left dumbfounded to explain this discrepancy. Pinkie Sense generally didn’t extend to the printed word, or to anything not involving falling pots, oncoming disasters, or the sourest of grapes. She mentally scanned every excuse her parents had given her, every reasonable explanation for the odd ways and powers the Pie Clan sometimes exhibited, but nothing matched with her current situation. All she could do was scrunch up in an ever-smaller ball and hope things would pass. “I…I can’t tell you.”
“Um…gals?” piped Spike. “Listen, I realize Pinkie’s hiding something and all, but don’t you think you’re laying it in a little thick?”
“This is from the same dragon that wanted to hang Princess Luna only a day ago?” Twilight said with a wry smile.
Spike shrugged and fiddled his claws together. “Yeah yeah, I know. But still, maybe you should hold off for now?”
Twilight looked at the sobbing wreck of a pink party pony laying before her, and shook her head. “I’m sorry, Spike, but I need to find that counterspell as soon as possible. And if Pinkie knows something that will help, I have to let Princess Celestia know.”
“Let Princess Celestia know.”
Somewhere inside Pinkie’s head, a tiny little nerve snapped. The pony leaped from her prone position and landed in front of Twilight, her teeth barred and ready to attack. The unicorn leaned back in shock, while her friends tried to make their way around Pinkie just in case. “P-Pinkie, I didn’t mean to…” Twilight stammered.
“SHUT UP!” The fury in Pinkie Pie’s voice pushed the volume up to Royal Canterlot Voice levels. All this accomplished was making everypony else even more terrified. “I don’t want to hear another stupid word out of you!”
“Um…Pink?” said AJ. “Ya’ll should just calm down…”
“I have been calm!” Pinkie growled. “I’ve sat here and let who was supposed to be the smartest pony in Equestria accuse me of trying to hurt the most wonderful, awesome, super-special-amazing pony in the history of ponydom!”
Twilight’s surprise quickly turned about to fury. “Then why was your family afraid of Celestia?”
Pinkie gasped. “What do you mean?”
“Your cousin told me everything!” Twilight shouted. “You mentioned something nopony like you should know, and your parents mentioned Kuchen by name!”
Pinkie dug in on her hooves, her body shaking with fear. Her eyes began to seemingly shift about in an unnatural, fairly unhealthy way, and from her vantage point, Twilight could swear the irises were changing colors. “How dare you talk behind my back!”
“Er…Pinkie Pie…” mumbled Dash.
“It was the only way I could find anything out!” Twilight screamed.
“Maybe that’s because there wasn’t anything to figure out!” Pinkie shouted.
“You mean, after everything I’ve dug up, you’re still going to keep quiet?”
A wave passed from Pinkie’s tail to her eyes, setting her fur on end. The tips of her tail and mane tightened and sharpened themselves as if through magic. Everypony took more than a few steps back, even the accusative Twilight. She spoke in a voice that was her own, and yet bore malice far greater than even her time under Discord’s influence. “You know what? You’re right. We’re all…friends here, are we not?”
Fluttershy yelped and darted behind a terrified Applejack. “P-P-Pinkie Pie! What’s happened to you?”
Pinkie’s eyes never left Twilight’s. The unicorn’s very body turned cold from the pony’s nonverbal onslaught. “You know what? I really do need to tell you something. Do you know what happened to Kuchen?”
Twilight gulped. “F-Frosty Gaze told me…”
“Ah yes, that nosey little unicorn,” Pinkie sneered. “He was the first pony in over five hundred years to track us down. He was a lot like you back then, always sticking his face where it didn’t belong. And he paid for it. Oh, how he paid for it.”
“P-P-P-Pi-Pinkie?” Twilight stammered. “Wh-What’s happened to you?”
“Kuchen was a lot like that, too. He thought he knew everything there was about Princess Celestia and the ‘Mare in the Moon.’ That’s why he tried to make himself to bestest unicorn in all of Equestria. And before long, he realized he really was better than everypony else. Certainly better than Celestia the fraud.”
Spike peeked out from behind Fluttershy. The pegasus, in turn, darted behind him. “Princess Celestia isn’t a fraud!”
If Pinkie had even heard the dragon’s protests, she paid them no heed. “Kuchen developed more spells than any other pony in history. So what if he drove everypony around him to madness? So what if he used his own family to test his possession spells? He was working for the betterment of Ponykind, after all! But no, Celestia didn’t see it that way. She saw him as a threat. So one night, she came by and…”
Pinkie’s head suddenly lurched to the left, followed by the pony making a cracking noise. “Just. Like. That.”
If Twilight was afraid before, she was now about halfway to losing her faculties completely. “Wh-What does this have to do with anything?”
Pinkie slowly advanced on the unicorn, her head still tilted. Twilight responded by stepping back in equal measure. “I just thought you should know, before it happens to you.”
“Pinkie, stop!” shouted Rarity. “Whatever’s wrong, we can work it out!”
“Do you really think Celestia doesn’t see the similarities, too?” Pinkie’s voice was a mix of a mocking laugh and a thinly-veiled threat. “You can defeat an Ursa Minor by yourself, bring a town to war in an instant, and teleport yourself anywhere. What’s to stop you from throwing an Ursa Minor into a city, or starting a civil war for fun, or teleporting yourself inside another pony?”
The edges of Twilight’s eyes became hot. “I-I would never…”
“You’re right, you never will. Because Celestia isn’t going to give you the chance. She’ll play you along until she’s had her fun, and then WHAM! It will all be over. All your research on friendship? She’ll bury it at the bottom of a library, claiming it to be cursed. All your friends and family? She’ll hunt them down and throw them in the deepest prison in the land, just to make sure nopony ever remembers you. And you? Well, all she’ll have to do is give it a little twist, and POP! GOES! YOUR! HEAD!”
“That’s enough!” shouted Applejack. “Ah don’t know what’s gotten into ya, Pinkie, but we’re gonna have ah few words!”
Pinkie didn’t seem to care. Every fiber of her being was focused on the sobbing unicorn before her. “Look at you. You were oh-so confident when you came cantering up here! What happened? Did I scare you? Or do you know I’m telling the truth? You’re just as crazy as Kuchen was. All you care about is making Princess Celestia happy, and that’s all well and good right now. But one day, she is going to disappoint you, and you will see she’s just a pony like everypony else. And then you’ll realize how much of your life you’ve wasted trying to please a nopony! Let’s see how wonderful you are when you realize you’re a worthless, scum-sucking, insane waste of a pony!”
There was a flash of purple light, and Twilight was gone, teleported to parts unknown. With the center of her rage gone, Pinkie could feel the terrible coldness leave her as quickly as it had appeared. Her mane and tail regained their puffiness, while her eyes shifted back to their normal hue. The pony looked about, utterly perplexed by what was going on. She slowly turned back to her friends, her brain quickly digesting what had just happened. “Twilight? Where’d you…?”
She stopped as she saw her friends. All five ponies (plus dragon) could only stare at Pinkie like she was some kind of horrible stranger. “Wh-What’s going on, girls? Where’s Twilight?”
“Pinkie…what on Celestia’s Equestria was that?!” gasped Rarity.
The pink pony raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
Rainbow Dash fluttered down, stopping right in front of Pinkie. Her eyes glared down the pony like a pair of freshly-shined daggers, and the party master realized something was terribly wrong. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the whole ‘Snap your neck and scare the horse apples out of Twilight’ thing!”
Pinkie took a few steps back, her ears flattening against her skull. If she was not feigning ignorance earlier, now she truly understood what had happened. “I…I didn’t mean…”
Applejack walked a few steps forward, her hoof hovering above Rainbow’s tail just in case. Her own demeanor was almost as cold and angry as the blue pegasus. “Jus’ what were ya’ll thinkin’, Pinkie? Twilight’s tryin’ ta help the princess, and ya’ll act like some kind of sociopath?”
Spike slowly walked up to join the others, Fluttershy still clinging to his tail. “Pinkie…Twilight’s telling the truth, isn’t she? You really do know all about the spell.”
Pinkie raised a hoof to her quivering mouth, her eyes burning hot with stifled tears. “I…I wanted to tell you…” She shook her head, her eyes closed so tight it hurt. “I can’t! It’s a secret!”
“B-B-But Princess Celestia…” muttered Fluttershy.
“ESPECIALLY from Princess Celestia!”
Before anypony could do anything, Pinkie turned on her hooves and bolted out the palace gate. Rainbow and Applejack dashed off after her, but their close proximity and simultaneous start sent the two crashing into each other. Rarity’s own attempt to give chase ended when she ran into the blue-and-orange heap, adding a white unicorn to the pile. Spike tried to give chase, but Fluttershy’s panic mode kept her clinging to his back, her weight holding the baby dragon down. Pinkie was long gone by the time everypony was done fighting free of each other.
Rainbow panted and gasped in confusion. “Wh-What are we gonna do now?”
Applejack dusted off and adjusted her hat, shifting from “Apple Buck Mode” to “Apple Farm Manager Mode.” “Dash, you and Fluttershy go high. Rarity ‘n Ah will search from ta ground. Ya’ll keep an eye out fer Pinkie or Twilight!”
When Lofty had first learned her mother had found work at Canterlot Castle itself, she was practically jumping with joy. Now that she had seen what the job actually involved, the filly was less than enthused at spending the day here.
Luna’s list of tasks more or less amounted to, “Go here, look at something, talk to somepony, get frustrated, repeat.” Ruby and Lofty had only been at work for less than an hour, and already the child was getting frustrated with cantering back and forth from one room to the next, occasionally stopping for a quick breather and to make sure the little pegasus was didn’t have to use the little fillies room before continuing.
Ruby wasn’t exactly having a ball, either. By the time she had left last night, most of the actual furniture and supplies for the party had arrived, and even now there were scores of ponies out in the gardens, all of them throwing the mish-mash of items together to create a semblance of order before tonight. As for Luna’s list of duties, she had only been able to scratch off five or six items, nearly all of them assigning other servants to either help clean the debris from last night’s storm, or to help with the rest of today’s deliveries.
Having her daughter following her didn’t make things any easier. Lofty wasn’t a bad child by any means, nor was she making things too difficult right now. No, the problem was the insane amount of security detail she had to worm her way through just to get to the various tasks her princess had outlined. Every doorway, every hallway, every everything had at least two guards stationed nearby, all of them ready and willing to protect the princesses from the deadly assassination skills of a kindergarten-aged filly. Ruby had even gone back outside to get her daughter’s pass attached to a chain necklace, and even that was barely enough to convince the guards that Lofty wasn’t going to spread mass destruction throughout the palace.
It was almost two hours into their duties, and right after Ruby had confirmed that onions and artichokes do not go together, when the two finally decided to take a proper break. The two trotted from the kitchen to a small dining room frequently used by the castle’s employees. A handful of ponies were still sitting there, finishing off a quick cup of tea or reading the morning paper before heading back to work.
Both mother and daughter slunk onto the wooden benches, their upper bodies laying against the tabletop. The filly in particular was close to exhaustion, having been hauled from one end of Canterlot’s royalist of buildings to another several times in the last short burst of time. Ruby picked up on her daughter’s plight almost immediately. “D-Do you need some water?”
Lofty rolled her eyes upwards, her head remaining motionless on the table. “Yes, please.”
Bending over to her saddle bags, Ruby flipped the flap open with her nose and gripped a plastic bottle between her teeth. The water container struggled against the various items Ruby had stashed inside, but finally yielded to the pegasus. Another pull, and it was opened and sitting on the table, in front of Lofty. Another flick of the adult’s wings, produced a bent straw, which soon found itself sitting neck-deep in the liquid.
Lofty nodded and started taking a few sips. Her energy seemed to return as she did so, her body visibly relaxing against the table. Ruby and the other servants smiled at the child’s joy. “So…how are you enjoying the castle?”
Lofty pulled herself away from the straw and shrugged. “It’s okay.”
Ruby had to cock her head at that one. “Okay? I certainly think spending the day at the center of Equestria’s government would be more than just ‘okay.’”
The filly sighed. “But it’s so boring! All you do is work!”
Just about everypony had a good laugh at that one, save for Lofty herself. “Lofty, sweetie,” said Ruby, “that’s what adults do. We go to our jobs and work all day so you can have food on your plate. And how about those flight lessons of yours? Miss Firefly doesn’t teach you for free, after all.”
“Oh, that’s right!” Lofty’s eyes practically popped out of their sockets in glee. The filly leaped onto the bench, showing all the boisterousness and showmareship of a trained athlete. “Miss Firefly finally showed me how to do a 180! Wanna see, mom?”
The entire lunchroom exploded into laughter as Ruby leaped over the table and slammed both forehooves on her daughter’s wings just as they were opening. The filly blurted out an agonized cry, both out of surprise and out of the pain on her sensitive wings. She slowly turned her head until she was at eye level with her mother, even as the tears began to water.
Ruby’s stone hard gaze softened slightly, but her motherly instincts remained. “Lofty, what did you promise me before we left the house today?”
Lofty sniffed and sobbed, showing as much of a foalish front as possible. “N-Not to fly in the palace?”
“And where are we now?”
Ruby let out a big sigh before releasing her daughter from the pincer attack. The other ponies were still in an uproar of laughter at the poor pegasi’s expense, leaving the older of the two blushing beneath her red coat. The younger didn’t quite understand what was going on, but could pick up that something was wrong. “I’m sorry, mom. I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s…all right.” Ruby shook her head vigorously, hoping to remove any lingering resentments towards the near disaster her daughter had unleashed. “Come on. We still have a lot of work to do today.”
In the time since Luna left, Celestia had discovered yet another fact of a filly’s life:
Jumping on your bed is overrated.
The filly landed back onto the bed, the mattress depressing in just the right way to support her tiny weight. The bouncing was a little fun at first, but after the fifth hop or so the game became rather predictable. And then there was the time she fell over the side. She had already taken enough blows to the head these last few days, and burying her face in the royal floor was not her idea of a good time.
Sulking, the pony slowly stepped off the bed and spread herself out on the ground, completely drowning herself in her own self-pity. All her suffering this morning had confirmed that there was not a single thing for the filly to do in her room. There was nary a sight of Twilight all morning, and there was little doubt that her friends were well on their way back to Ponyville by now. Her servants would be of no use right now, especially with that contemptible party this very evening.
And Luna was no doubt hard at work, ensuring the continued prosperity of their fair nation…
Luna couldn’t believe it.
One minute, she was afraid she would be eaten alive by a hoard of angry, prepubescent youngsters, and the next she was being greeted cautiously but warmly. Even the photographers and press agents, nearly all of whom had believed this to be the princess’ personal buffet table only a short time earlier, seemed genuinely amazed at how well the normally awkward princess was handling everything.
“So Mr. Weevil said to Mrs. Butterscotch, ‘What are you going to do with that shovel?’ ‘Why, I am going to dig for worms for my best friend’s birthday cake!’ she replied.”
The entire room exploded in laughter and applause from the children, while the adults in the room just shrugged at the punchline. Luna was especially confused by the book’s turn of events. I thought the weevil was going to the store for some coconut milk. Why is he talking to a pony all of a sudden? For that matter, how is a weevil able to talk to a pony in the first place? And what can an insect do with coconut milk anyway? This “children’s literature” genre will require some reworking before-
Luna broke free from her thoughts and glanced down at the little filly at her hooves. “C-Can you please continue? The story’s getting really good!”
“Oh, of course,” she said with a smile. “I was just…a little lost in thought. Now, where was I…?”
It took only a second to find her spot in the book again. The princess telekinetically turned the page, revealing the next paragraph of the weevil’s grand adventures. “And so Mr. Weevil continued walking to the store, until he came across a very hungry pegasus.” And what does that have to do with worms in cakes? Mrs. Butterscotch’s story would be more interesting than a bug trying to buy something he has no use for. How does a weevil earn money anyway? This story has so many plot holes...
Celestia was about ready to go into another mope cycle when she heard voices on the other side of her door.
“All right, that’s another thing done. Now we need to head back to the gardens to help set up the chairs.”
“Again? But we were just out there, mom!”
The princess’ ear flicked up at the word “mom.” The tone, pitch and whininess all perfectly cross referenced with everything she knew about a specific subgroup of ponies: foals. In fact, it was a perfect match for those shown by the Bearers during last night’s incident.
Curious, Celestia crept closer to the door. She pressed her ear against the door just in time to catch the rest of the conversation. “I know, but there’s a lot to get ready before tonight! There’s going to be a party here, and I have to make sure everything is perfect for Princess Luna.”
“A party? Are we invited?”
“No dear. This is a very private party, and it’s very important for the princess that everything goes well.”
“Come on, you’ll like…”
The voices faded off into the distance, but Celestia had heard enough. She couldn’t quite peg who was talking, but it was definitely a mother and child. More than likely, it was one of those “take your filly to school day” things teachers used for a cheap day off, a practice Celestia had all but given up on stamping out. In any case, nopony had ever brought their filly to the palace itself. The bureaucracy alone must have been an absolute nightmare.
Celestia waited a few more seconds for the hoofsteps to disappear entirely before she dared to open one half of the door. Peeking around the closed side, she managed to pick up a small, yellow pegasus filly wandering with a red mare. The two were carrying on a conversation, most likely the small one complaining to the big one about how tired she was getting from walking around all day.
It didn’t take long for the guards to notice Celestia was taking a few steps outside. One of the burly pegasus ponies stepped forward and bowed, both to show reverence to his leader and to reach eye level. “May I ask what you are doing, your Highness?”
The filly shrugged. “Oh, nothing of consequence. By the way, who were those ponies?”
The guard turned towards the small dots in the distance. “Those would be Princess Luna’s temporary attendant and her daughter. They were attending to royal business with the Treasury just now.”
A tiny little switch flipped in the princess’ brain, causing a mischievous smile to spread across her lips. For the second time in as many days, fate had laid something glorious in her lap. And yet, something else held her back. This was her last chance to make this work, and she had to be prepared.
Celestia cleared her throat, taking on as much of a commanding tone as possible. “I need you to escort me to my study. I have some reading to do.”
Celestia’s study was just as well-kept as ever, save for the ashes of that book still sitting in the fireplace. Pushing the charred remains of the dirty pictures book aside, the guard dutifully lit a fire for his princess before returning to his post. Celestia gave the usual thanks, waited until he was gone, and then darted for a nearby mural depicting a sun and moon in perfect equilibrium.
The filly quickly pushed a small stool under the mural before parting the metaphorical curtain, revealing a fake portion of the wall. Celestia took a running leap to the stool, landing on top at just the right angle to slide the panel aside. On the other side sat a collection of the most precious parchments Celestia had ever collected.
Twilight Sparkle’s friendship reports.
The filly regarded the bound scrolls with pride. For over a year, her pupil had dutifully studied and documented the magic of friendship. Things like slumber parties, races, and parties were old hat for many ponies, but for Celestia’s prized student they were as foreign as being in another country. Nevertheless, the unicorn had gladly jotted down every lesson she had learned with her friends, and then sending them via dragon to the princess to show the progress of her research. For most of the first year, Celestia had viewed Twilight’s progress with a mixture of pride and more than a little bit of jealousy.
And then the Smarty Pants incident happened. Twilight had not only disappointed Celestia immensely, she had revealed the flaws in the princess’ grand plan. One pony was not enough for such a large project, and it was only good fortune that Twilight’s friends had arrived when they did. Otherwise…
Celestia closed her eyes. No. Don’t think about that. It was five hundred years ago. Twilight is not like…him.
Shaking her head clear of such thoughts, she reached her head into the compartment and started pulling out the scrolls. It was right as the entire pile started sagging forward that the princess realized she really should not have put off actually organizing Twilight’s letters. The mass of papers tumbled into the filly, sending her crashing down to the floor in a tangled mess of feathers, limbs, and parchment.
The dizzy filly climbed back to her hooves, throwing off the papers in about five different directions. Her eyes quickly caught one that had popped open; it was as good a starting place as any. If Twilight Sparkle and her friends have been sending me lessons all this time, then I should be able to find everything I need here.
She knelt down before the open scroll, unrolling it fully with her muzzle before reading. “Dear Princess Celestia: My friend, Applejack, is…”
“And so the dog found a new home on the bee farm, where she and Farmer Honeysuckle lived happily ever after. The end.”
With a last quick burst of magic, Luna closed the book (A Dog Named Honey) and floated it back to one of the bookshelves. The fillies in the room clapped and gave as much applause as they could, while the journalists in the back scribbled down notes with their mouths and own magic. For a few moments, the Princess of the Moon felt her own spirits being lifted.
Then she got a glance at the clock. The morning was almost over, she had to get ready for yet another round of appointments all afternoon, and there was still tonight’s little party to get ready for. She gave a nod to the waiting nurse on the other side of the room, who quickly returned the same gesture.
“I’m sorry, my little ponies,” Luna said, “but I’m afraid I have to be going.” The room erupted into a groan of disappointment. “I understand, but there is still a lot of royal business I have to take care of. And with my big sister on vacation, I have to finish as much as possible by myself.”
“B-But you can come again, right?” asked one of the children.
“This was the awesomemestest thing ever!” said another.
“Yeah, you rock!”
Everypony’s eyes turned to one of the reporters in the back. The unicorn blushed like a ripe tomato before hiding his face beneath his hat and coat. “Um…I mean…Wow, what a scoop!”
Luna turned her attention back to the fillies and colts, giving them a warm smile. “I cannot say when, but if the doctors and nurses find me agreeable, I will try to return. That is a promise, and princesses never break their promises.”
And with that, as well as a few more well wishes and goodbyes, Luna’s brief morning adventure came to an end. With a heavy sigh, she followed Nurse Ward back through the halls of the hospital, no doubt to the same chilly reception as before. And sure enough, cruel fate did not want to disappoint, as the front lobby was once again filled with ponies bowing in fear and reverence as Luna approached. In fact, she could swear a few of them had not moved from the same spot they were in when she first arrived.
“I really do wish to thank you, your Highness,” said Ward. “It really does mean a lot to these children to know that the princesses care about them.”
“Even if it’s not Celestia?” Luna said with a moan.
Nurse Ward paused by the hospital doors, raising a hoof back towards the Children’s Wing. “Didn’t you see them back there? You may not have rainbows for hair, but they still loved you.”
The princess paused as well, reflecting on everything that had just happened. The room certainly didn’t seem hostile, especially after she had a few minutes to warm up to the crowd, and the reception from the back was positive. “I…I suppose so.”
“I can’t speak for the administration, but if you can ever find time in your busy schedule to stop by for a few minutes, feel free. And Princess Celestia is certainly invited as well.” Nurse Ward gave a last bow as Luna willed the hospital doors open. “Thank you for your time, your Highness.”
“It is no trouble at all,” Luna replied. “I’m honestly surprised Celestia never found time for this herself. I will deliver the message once she returns from vacation.”
Now filled to the brim with some sense of self-confidence, Luna trotted back to her waiting carriage, where her two pegasii were busy staring at clouds and discussing life’s innermost mysteries. The moment her rear royal hooves struck the chariot’s floor, however, the two guards hopped to their hooves, reared up in a mighty whinny, and galloped ahead about ten feet before leaping up and flapping their wings.
From the ground below, a single unicorn reporter watched as Luna and her personal guards disappeared into the distance. Once he was certain they were well out of hearing range, he lit up his horn and began scribbling away on a notepad:
“Princess Celestia ducking hospital gig. Princess Luna responds. Possible story?”
After delivering a few dozen scrolls and letters to the various offices in the palace, Ruby and Lofty reached the garden doors. By now, the filly was panting in not-so-quiet exhaustion and frustration, something her mother had noticed. “Do you need to take a break, Lofty?”
“N-No, mom,” said Lofty. “I’m fine. I’m learning so much.”
Ruby smiled. “Really, now? So tell me, what pony’s painting is hanging in the East Hall?”
Lofty’s grin faded as she tried to mentally recall everything she had seen. “Um...Princess Celestia?”
The older pegasus laughed and gave her filly a friendly nudge on the forehead. “Lucky guess.”
Her attention returned to the garden. In the short time between their last visit and the present, more and more ponies had arrived to help set things up. In particular, the construction teams had arrived to set up the stage for the orchestra, as well as a few perches for the visiting Cloudsdale delegation. Between the sheer mass of bodies running about outside, the ongoing construction, and the volume of things Ruby still had to accomplish, it was obviously no place for a child.
The big pegasus turned to the smaller one, giving her the usual motherly smile. “Lofty, I will need you to stay here for a little while. I’m afraid I can’t have you running around outside right now.”
Lofty huffed and fumed. “Oh…all right.”
Still smiling, Ruby gave the filly a quick nuzzle on the top of the head. “I will just be a few minutes. Just stay here and keep working on that picture of Princess Luna. I want that hanging in the Canterlot Art Gallery by nightfall.”
Lofty made a move to say something, but the mare was already out the door and in the garden itself. Sighing, the filly sat on her haunches, pulled out her notepad, and began drawing away, adding some flame breath to Luna’s already frightening range of powers.
Celestia sat around the corner, crouched like a panther about to pounce on a bird.
The filly was sitting there, scribbling away on a notepad. Her mother had just stepped through the garden doors, unwittingly leaving her daughter at her princess’ mercy. There were still plenty of guards, sure, but they would not dare interfere in their ruler’s schemes. And “schemes” would certainly be the correct word to use for Celestia’s plans.
Her own studies into the Magic of Friendship may not have been first-hand like Twilight’s, but her student’s letters were more than sufficient to close the gap. She had already read through them dozens of times in the past, living vicariously through the unicorn and her friend’s triumphs and failures, but the last study session had given her the insight she needed to proceed.
At long last, she would have a friend. A playmate. Somepony she could spend time with and just enjoy herself, not as a princess, but as a regular pony. And best of all, Luna wasn’t there to stop her. The foal was practically rubbing her hooves together in anticipation.
My research has told me everything I need to know. All I have to do is take a few steps into the room, say “Hello,” and bam, instant friendship. Twilight’s reports make it sound so simple, I’m amazed I never tried it before.
Taking a deep, confidence-raising breath, Princess Celestia strode two steps into the room. The sound of her hooves soon caught the other filly’s attention, the pencil ceasing its mouth-guided movements. The little pony managed to catch a glimpse of a small, pony-shaped blur darting back down the hall before losing interest and returning to her drawings.
Meanwhile, back at her vantage point, Celestia was in a sorry shape. Her fur was creased and messy, as was her hair. All of this was a result of the massive amounts of terror sweat that had just ran through every inch of her fur, the kind that a prisoner would feel before facing their execution. With trembling, fear-filled eyes, the princess looked back, saw that the filly was still scribbling away, and just as quickly darted her eyes in the opposite direction.
Celestia wheezed and heaved, her pupils dilating from the stress. The moment she saw that filly staring at her, everything had gone black. Her body was wracked with an unfiltered emotion she had not experienced in a long time: fear.
Coughing a bit, the princess tried to shake herself clear of those thoughts. You are Princess Celestia, Steward of the Sun and Crown Princess of the Nation of Equestria. You have faced everything from dragons to griffons, defeated Manticores and Windigoes, and dethroned that monster Discord. You have ruled Equestria for over a thousand years, and under you, the land has thrived into a paradise amongst the world. Why are you scared of a little girl?
Her newfound confidence quickly vanished as she took another look at the filly, still blissfully unaware of her royal stalker. “But…what if she doesn’t like me?” she whispered.
Everypony loves you!
“And what if she tells everypony what happened to me?”
Do you want friends or not?!
Celestia shrank back even further. “I don’t know who she is. How am I supposed to talk to her? What am I supposed to say?”
You command an entire country, you foal! Surely you can speak to one filly?
“B-But…What if I do something wrong? What if I’m a jerk to her, like I was to Luna? Wh-What if she’s mean to me?”
You’ll never know how she’ll treat you if you just sit here and hide. And besides, you may have made mistakes with Luna, but she still…maybe…loves you. You’ll be fine.
Celestia nodded to the vast empty space before her. “Yes, that’s right. If I can rule a country, I can certainly handle myself around a filly. Thank you…”
Her thoughts suddenly trailed off as a realization struck her. She had just spent the last few minutes arguing with, for lack of a better term, herself. The filly gave a deep, heavy sigh, her muscles visibly relaxing as the tension washed away in a great wave. The situation’s getting the better of me. I just have to walk up to her, say “Hello,” and everything will be-
The sound of the young voice completely shattered Celestia’s concentration. The terror within her welled up yet again, sending the filly hopping straight up a good ten feet before spinning about and landing, her fur standing on end like a startled cat. The same little filly she had been trying to befriend was now standing directly behind her, looking almost as scared as the princess.
The two stood there, completely unable to move, for about ten seconds before the filly spoke up again. “Um…Hi. My name’s Lofty. What’s yours?”
All right, Celestia, you have your cover story. Your fake name is…
“HELLO I AM A PRINCESS ARE YOU A PRINCESS TOO!”
Celestia immediately covered her mouth with one hoof, her cheeks burning red from the nonsense she had just blurted out. Lofty took a few steps back, seeming very, very afraid of the strange child before her. The princess, for her part, was quickly reverting into a bowl of jelly. Never before had she been so, for lack of a better word, shy. “I mean, my name is…er…Sunlight.” The princess began to bow. “And I am very grateful to-“ She quickly caught herself mid-curtsy and returned to her usual standing position. “I mean…it’s nice to meet you.”
Lofty’s apprehension began to turn to befuddlement at the pony’s awkwardness, before gradually turning into curiosity. She looked the princess up and down, taking in every inch of her being. In particular, she noticed two rather obvious things that should not go together. “How’d you get a horn and wings? I thought only princesses had both.”
“Um…that is, you see…” Celestia’s eyes widened as inspiration struck her. “I am a princess! You see, I’m Princess Sunlight, Royal Niece to Princesses Celestia and Luna! I’m visiting my aunts so they can teach me how to be a better princess!”
As if to try and sell the ridiculous lie, Celestia clenched her teeth into a big, toothy grin, even as her shifting eyes threatened to betray her. Unfortunately for the princess, they did. Lofty took a few steps towards Celestia, obviously incredulous at her story. “I’ve never heard of a filly princess before. Aren’t they all supposed to be a bazillion feet tall, and weigh a hundred tons?”
Celestia’s teeth were now gritting for a very different reason. It’s always the weight, isn’t it? Just because I like cake doesn’t mean I’m fat! “I’m…just a little kid, I guess. I mean, Aunt Celestia and Luna must have been fillies at some point, right?”
The filly appeared to give no heed to Celestia’s nervous giggling. Instead, her eyes zoomed in on the other distinguishing feature: a certain mark on the pony’s backside. Lofty’s jaw hung in amazement. “You have a cutie mark already? And…it’s the same as Princess Celestia’s?!”
Celestia felt like bucking herself right now for forgetting that telltale giveaway. “Um…it’s…fake?”
Lofty titled her head. “Fake?”
“Um…yeah. You see, I love my cous- I mean, aunt so much that I asked her to...um…paint a copy of her cutie mark on! You know, just like at a carnival or something…um…” Why is this so difficult?
“I think they paint your face at a carnival, not your flank.” Lofty shook her head sadly. “And what’s with your mane?”
Celestia reached up and wrapped a lock of her rainbow hair around a hoof. “Oh…well, Princess Luna let me use Aunt Celestia’s shampoo. This is what it does to your hair.”
Lofty did little else but grimace at the filly for a few moments, setting Celestia’s nerves off even more. Any moment now, she could be discovered for the liar she was, and her hopes of ending this conversation gracefully would be dashed like a cruiser on the rocks. Her fears abated, however, when the pony, instead of digging in deeper, gave her a smile. “Oh, okay! So, do you want to draw?”
Celestia’s exuberance threw the filly off balance yet again. The princess quickly realized her mistake. “I mean…sure.”
If the scene inside the palace was a little crazy, the garden’s current state was a cacophony of chaos.
Pony after pony darted past Ruby, desperately racing to finish their assignments in time for someone else to begin theirs. The sitting tables were not in perfect alignment, an atrocious affront to the delicate feelings of the upper class. Any attempt to reshuffle the seating arrangement only ran into another web of old hostilities, family feuds, and fear of being placed farther and farther away from the princess. The plants and shrubs were still too wet to suitably decorate, which was fine, since they were short about two dozen roses. At least those blue plants the florists found looked nice under the lights.
Ruby was half-ready to just give up on the job, perhaps find a nice cloud for her family to crash on while Luna’s near-certain rage had run its course, when she heard another set of hoofsteps coming from the garden doors. The pegasus turned to the entryway, eyes clamped shut. “Princess Luna, I’m so sorry! I know everything isn’t done, but…”
“I…I’m not Princess Luna.”
Ruby slowly opened her eyes, taking in a very un-winged unicorn. Before her stood the purple unicorn she had occasionally glimpsed around the palace. The pony’s eyes were a light red, and when combined with the wrinkled bags under her eyes, it was obvious this pony had been crying her eyes out only moments before.
The pegasus cocked her head at the sad sight before her. “Um…are you all right, Miss…?”
“Twilight Sparkle.” The pony coughed a few times to clean out her dried throat. “I…I’m sorry if I’m intruding. I just wanted to…”
“It’s no problem at all, Miss Sparkle,” Ruby said with the shake of a hoof. “Things are just a little too chaotic over here right now, nothing more. I had no idea being the princess’ personal attendant could be so…trying.” The pegasus’ attention quickly returned to the still-ailing unicorn. “Is there something wrong?”
The unicorn hung her head aside, ashamed to let the other pony see her in this state. “Well…I was hoping Princess Luna was back. I needed to talk to her about some things.”
Ruby looked up at the sun, trying to identify the time of day as best she could. “She should be back any minute now. She was hoping to get some paperwork finished before court this afternoon.”
“I see.” Twilight glanced back and forth, making sure nopony inappropriate was listening in before continuing. “And have you seen Princess Celestia anywhere?”
Ruby looked up from her scroll in confusion. “What? She isn’t in her room?”
“One of the guards said she had gone to her study, but she wasn’t there, either.”
“Well, she couldn’t have gone far. I’m just about finished out here. Let me give you some help.”
Twilight nodded. “Th-Thank you.”
Ruby waved a dismissing hoof before opening the garden doors. “Oh, it’s no trouble at all. As Princess Luna’s royal attendant, it is my duty to…”
It was at very moment, as the two stepped through the door, that Ruby and Twilight caught a glimpse of two small fillies. One was the attendant’s precious yellow filly, and the other…
Twilight immediately slammed the door shut, getting the attention of both fillies. The yellow filly was especially happy to see the red mare. “You’re back, mom!”
Lofty jumped to her hooves and galloped up to her mother, her neck craning in preparation for the requisite nuzzle. All she got was a look of stunned disbelief.
Meanwhile, the pegasus’ companion trotted up to Celestia, looking more amazed than terrified. “Wh-What are you doing out here, Pri-”
Celestia quickly shushed her student, her eyes still locked on Lofty. “Ix-nay on the Elestia-cay. As far as everypony is concerned, my name is Princess Sunlight, niece to the Royal Pony Sisters. Just play along with my brilliant cover, and everything will be fine.”
“Wh-What are you doing?” Ruby stammered.
“I was just playing with Princess Celestia,” said Lofty.
The entire room went quiet, if only so everypony could properly catalogue the filly’s brazen confession. Sighing, Celestia slowly walked up to Lofty. “You mean you knew the whole time?”
“Well, you weren’t very good at hiding,” said Lofty. “I mean, how many rainbow-haired ponies have wings and a horn, anyway?”
“Th-Then why did you let me stay?”
Lofty shrugged. “I dunno. I thought it was a game.” She looked up to her mother. “Why is she a filly, though? I always thought Princess Celestia was bigger.”
Ruby didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say or think right now. Her daughter and Princess Celestia had not only found each other, they had been playing together. All this spat in the face of Luna’s orders from yesterday. What am I worried about? I’m sure Princess Luna was just joking. She wouldn’t really...”
Everypony’s thoughts were interrupted by a sudden flash of blue light. Before everypony stood Princess Luna, in all her royal glory. And even more bizarrely, she was smiling. It wasn’t the mocking smile of a victorious prankster, nor was it a faked grin to hide her inner frustration. It was real, genuine happiness.
Once the light had dissipated, Luna turned to her still-shellshocked attendant and accompanying filly, completely oblivious to the two other ponies standing behind her. The blue alicorn could barely resist giving the pegasus a great big bear hug as it was. “Salutations and good morning, Miss Dream! Is everything in order around the palace?!”
“Um…I…gah…” Ruby wasn’t quite sure how to feel about the visage of Luna standing before her. She had never really seen the princess, for lack of a better word, happy.
“Oh, do not worry if not everything was finished,” Luna said with a wave of her hoof. “I’m certain you have gotten enough accomplished for us to finish today’s tasks. And besides, I…”
It was right about then that she realized there were other ponies in the room. The princess slowly turned about, expecting to see her royal guards or one of the palace’s advisors. Instead, she saw a Twilight that had apparently spent the last hour crying and her filly of an older sister. All the goodness that had filled the princess’ very being dried up in an instant, only to be replaced by a mixture of ragged frustration and general ill-will towards Ruby and her daughter.
“Your Majesty,” Ruby began, “I can explain…”
The alicorn spun about, her eyes alone expressing her great displeasure. “You promised me your daughter and my sister would remain far apart. What is going on here?”
The filly chirped up, still scared but desperate to save her mother from the fire-breathing princess of death. “I just found Princess Celestia wandering around. I just thought she was playing a game or something. I didn’t know it was a bad thing.”
“Just wait a minute, little sister,” Celestia snapped. “I’m the one that started everything. I saw Lofty and her mom earlier, and I just wanted to hang out with her for a few minutes. If you’re going to punish somepony, it should be me.”
Luna’s attention shifted back and forth, from one potential victim to the next. Everypony stood in bated breath for her to pass judgment, while also planning out the fastest possible escape routes from the palace itself. Ruby’s wings were extended, earning a silent admonishment from her grounded spawn, while Twilight quickly levitated Celestia onto her back in case she had to start galloping for dear life. Even the guards, who had been viewing the events with quiet interest, found themselves preparing for the inevitable slaughter.
“…Very well,” Luna said with a sigh. “What’s done is done.” The princess’ death gaze drifted downwards, centering on the yellow filly’s forehead. “Just remember this, child. Nopony is to know about Celestia’s condition. Your friends, teachers, and other relatives are to remain as oblivious as you were this morning. Tell anyone of this, and you may face severe consequences. Do you understand?”
Lofty’s brain came very close to shutting down halfway through Luna’s speech, and were Ruby not rapidly bobbing the filly’s head, she would have been as motionless as a statue. “Sh-She understands, your Highness! She won’t tell anypony!”
Luna facehoofed at her attendant’s terror. And I was just getting away from that, too. “Twilight, take Princess Celestia back to her room. I want you to return to work finding a cure. Miss Dream, you and your daughter will accompany me to my offices. We need to finish reading over those briefings from the War Department. And I have a few words to say to the Department of Education about their book selection…”