A groovy mystery, gang.
8w, 3dThe Writer's Group
76w, 2dThe good prince
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- - -
- - -
Rarity entered the library refreshed after a good night's sleep. She'd even had time to cook a quick breakfast with Sweetie and her parents before gathering a few things and heading out. True, yesterday's 'training' had been rather embarrassing, but it had produced some tangible results so it could be forgiven for appearing so unorthodox. Celestia had trained Twilight properly, after all, and Rarity trusted Twilight to similarly show wisdom in passing on what she had learned.
In a good mood, she was even happier to see Spike answer the door.
"Good morning, Spike!" she favored the little dragon with a friendly smile. He returned it, a little nervously, but with innocent affection.
"H-hi, Rarity," he swooned, but just as quickly, seemed to deflate. Biting his lip, he took a step back. "You - you probably don't want me in the way, so..."
"Not at all! In fact, I brought something for you!" Rarity wiped her hooves on the library's entryway mat and entered, closing the door behind her with a swoosh of her tail. She'd come with one of her favorite little saddlebags on her back, a dark red number she had picked up on a trip to Canterlot. Using a bit of magic, she retrieved a white bag tied with a loop of golden thread.
"For me?" Spike asked, wide eyed with wonder and excitement and hope. "Really?"
"Yes, I was thinking the other day, that this whole terrible experience with Antimony has really shown me how wonderful all my friends are. Everypony seemed so worried about me, the very moment they heard; I just had to repay them somehow. Not a dress this time, but maybe a hat?" She leaned in to ask in a conspiratorial tone. "Twilight doesn't have many hats, does she? Or wigs?"
The image of Twilight Sparkle in a puffy white wig caused the baby dragon to cough, rather than laugh out loud.
"I really hope not," he said, choking back a snicker. "I really, really hope not. But hats!" He quickly amended. "I don't think she has any hats. Not stylish ones anyway, like you'd wear, Rarity."
"That is so sweet, but I bet you're wondering what I got you?" she asked, and levitated over the little white bag. "Just between you and me, I've come into some very interesting materials lately and seem to have a few extra. I know you love gemstones, so I wanted to see if any of these are to your liking?"
Spike slowly and carefully opened the gem-bag before reaching in with three fingers and then a whole hand. Opening his palm, he saw a number of sparkling silver and pink pearls, some round saltwater cultured, and others freshwater and bulb-shaped. There was also an oval shaped amethyst and several cut pieces of watermelon tourmaline. The last piece, at the bottom of the bag, was wrapped in paper: a small, rare scarlet emerald, also known as red beryl.
"A certain somepony has a dislike for anything but very small, very fine gemstones," Rarity explained with a frown. "I just finished her neckline and flourish last night, and thought: wouldn't it nice to give these to someone who will actually appreciate them?"
"Spike?" she asked, when she noticed he hadn't responded. "Oh, you don't like-"
"I love them!" he blurted out, staring up at her with wide green eyes. "I do."
A little conspicuously, though, he slid the pearls back into the bag first.
"Especially this red beryl," he muttered, licking his lips and staring into the rose colored, multifaceted gem. It was small, but extremely rare in the otherwise gem-rich Equestria. "There's only one deposit that produces it in the entire country! I've never had one before!"
"Well, bon appétit!" She started as he ran over to embrace her in a hug.
To her surprise, he started to sniffle.
"Spike?" she asked, blinking in confusion. "Are you alright?"
"I'll make it up to you," he said, quickly stepping back and putting the gems away in their silk bag.
"It was a gift," she reminded him, further confused by how her response only seemed to deepen his frown. "You don't need to make it up to me. We're friends. You're my Spikey-Wikey!"
"I - uh - I'll go get Twilight!"
Leaving the perplexed unicorn mare behind, Spike ran off.
"How strange." Shrugging, Rarity quickly put aside the peculiar behavior and took a look around the library while waiting for her friend to come down. The town library was very cozy and inviting, even for the less than literature-obsessed. Most interesting of all, there was a table with a sheet over it - some sort of experiment, knowing Twilight.
A dozen books were also on reading podiums or bookmarked and stacked around the table.
Definitely some sort of experiment, then. Further evidence was in the blackboard-on-wheels that lay reclined against the wall. Sketches, diagrams and arcane script covered all but two corners of the chalkboard. A long list of names were crossed out. Rarity, curious, trotted over for a closer look. The pony names, on inspection, were actually the names of gemstones.
Hearing hoofsteps descending down the stairs, Rarity turned to the table.
"Good morning, Rarity!" she heard Twilight call down. "Did you eat already?"
"I had a light breakfast, yes, but thank you." She inspected the sheet on the table. "If you don't mind me asking, what are you working on under this?"
"Go ahead and take a look!" Twilight replied, Spike close behind her.
"Don't mind if I do. What could...? Oh, I recognize this!" Rarity folded up the white sheet she had pulled off of the supposed experiment in progress. "This is that relic Lyra brought in the other day, isn't it? Some sort of archaic torc?"
Twilight nodded, but sighed in frustration. "That's it! I've been working on it in my spare time: checking the dates, trying to find sources in my books, things like that. I even had a picture taken and sent to Canterlot to see if they had any more information to help in reconstructing it."
"It doesn't appear broken to me," the dressmaker replied, leaning closer for a better look. The torc was positioned over a wooden bust of a unicorn mare, her chin held high as she looked off dramatically in the distance. The artifact seemed terribly antiquated and out of fashion to Ponyville's trendsetter, lacking even in the overly romanticized exaggeration of period pieces. The loops around the neck looked uncomfortable and far too small, too tightly bound together, and the ring around the horn also seemed far too gaudy.
It was a little hard to believe that unicorns used to wear such things.
She did, however, see what Twilight had to be referring to. Peering closer, she saw the tiny empty depression in the strangely shaped golden leaves about the head. There were two of them.
"You mean these little pits?" Rarity asked, pulling back. "I can see what you mean. Something would've been embedded in them."
"Gems, probably," the other mare replied. "I tried everything to find out what used to be in there, but: nothing! Every spell came back without a clear response."
Rarity pulled up a foreleg to tap her chin.
"Did you try Clover's Clairvoyance?" she asked.
"Clover's Clairvoyance was the very first thing I tried," Twilight replied, and gave a soft 'hmm' before listing off her other attempts. "After that, I tried Insomnia's Intuition, Insight and Information. Decal's Dedicated Discernment. Decal's Dweomer Detection, both regular and advanced. Then I tried Penny's Penetrating Precognition and even Starswirl's Sixth Sensing."
"Nothing!" Twilight exclaimed, clearly at the end of her magical rope. "Sixth Sensing and Decal's spells told me that there was something missing, but not what. Penny's came back with 'try again later' and Clover's Clairvoyance, which usually works so well, returned 'inconclusive' three times. I think I've exhausted what I can do here."
"Well, Twilight, you could always have asked me to help," Rarity noted with a broad smile, briefly rubbing her hooves together and trotting up closer to the troublesome torc. "I know a little about the delicate art of lapidary myself, and while I respect the work put into all those spells, I'd like to try one of my own to see if I have any luck."
Twilight, just then, seemed to recall how Rarity had taught her more than a few gem-related spells, all of which she had created herself. The gem-finding spell in particular was one Rarity took pride in, having combined an illumination spell, a detection spell, and a transparency spell. The result was a unique piece of magic-weaving that made finding buried gems as easy as seeing them glow underground, like a lamp beneath murky water.
"What do you have in mind?" the librarian asked, stepping aside and out of the way but watching her friend closely. A bit of a prodigy herself, she could copy many spells just by seeing them once, or by reading incomplete formulas in books.
"You could call it a 'sense style' spell," Rarity explained, pacing before the torc and wooden bust. "Call it... Rarity's Rubric Refinement."
"It passes the alliteration test," Twilight joked, "But what does it do?"
Rarity bowed her head to the artifact, already beginning her spell; energy pooled from her horn into a glittering field as the magic took 'shape.'
"Like I said," she repeated. "It senses style. Other spells, like Clover's, investigate an object as if it were a word with a letter missing. That works well if you already understand how the common pronunciation and language structure exists. But it would be less useful in a different language. Just the same, Decal's spells work by attempting to analyze the magic as if it were a chemical formula, looking for the missing element following known rules. But if you don't know the rules..."
"Then you get an inconclusive result," Twilight realized, nodding in agreement. "But that would mean there was something strange with the object in the first place?"
"Not strange," Rarity corrected her friend, the spell unfurling from her horn to engulf the torc. "Just unfamiliar. This spell I'm using attempts to feel for the artistry of an object - to read the intention of the maker, left in the material. If whoever made this put their heart and soul into it then there should be an imprint of their desire left... reaching for somepony to make it whole."
She gasped, and licked her lips, having found something.
"A little illusion and..."
Rarity's magical field expanded, just for a moment, and an enlarged image of the five-fielded spade - definitely not a hand, contrary to what some pony said - appeared. In the center of it, where the depression had been, a clear diamond-like sphere pulsed with energy. Colors reflected within it, seething as they attempted to break free. Rarity could hold the projection for all of a second and a half before it got away from her and shattered, turning to dream dust.
"I lost it," she lamented, falling back onto her flank. Reaching up to the side of her head, she closed her eyes and tried to recall what she had seen and felt. "There was... a pony... pouring something. It didn't feel like a normal gem. It wasn't. Something special. Reflection. Purity. Something... pure...?"
"Something... pure?" Twilight asked, and her violet eyes lit up. "Spike!"
"Uh, yeah?" Her always handy, always capable assistant jumped out in front of her.
"I think I know what it is!" she exclaimed, and looked down at him. "Water! Spike, you know where I keep the pure water?"
He nodded, stealing a look at Rarity, who still seemed to be recovering from her spellwork.
"Yeah," he said, after that moment of hesitation. "Downstairs, in the lab area, bottom drawer? Bunch of glass and crystal vials?"
"That's them," she confirmed. "But!" she stressed, suddenly. "I need the one in the tin bottle, inside the brown box. It has the pictogram for 'virgin' on it. You know that one, right?"
"Not really... but I got it! I'll find it and be right back!" He took another look at Rarity, convinced himself she was fine, and ran to the door to the basement lab. Watching him go, Twilight could've sworn she also heard him mutter something about 'silly pony pictograms' but then he was gone.
"Twilight?" Rarity asked, coming back to her senses. She looked confused. "Water? I'm fine-"
"Not for you," her friend tried to explain. "The answer is water. It wasn't a gemstone at all. It was water."
"I'm afraid I don't follow," the fashionista admitted.
"Water," Twilight said again, and clarified her meaning a moment later. "Pure water. The ancients considered it a powerful alchemical reagent, and we still use it for certain spells and enchantments today."
"But... really? Water?" Rarity frowned. The revelation seemed like a let-down; she had clearly been expecting something more fabulous or dramatic, like an Ingot of Living Lava, or a Moonstone, or an Eternal Eye.
"Just... water?" she asked, failing to see why Twilight was so excited.
"Not just water," the studious pony replied. "Pure water. Don't think of it as the kind of water we drink, like from a well or a river."
"Magically purified water," she explained, with the certainty that came from being convinced she had finally solved a puzzle after days of hitting and missing. "They gather it from mountain glaciers or from the northern pole and store it in airtight glass. The glass itself still contaminates some of the ice, so when it gets here, they discard some of it. The rest is repeatedly distilled, passed through magical filters and then treated by..."
Seeing Rarity bracing for a long technical lecture, Twilight groaned and cut to the point.
"Magically pure water has less than one particle of contaminant for every trillion particles of water," she said, hoping it got the point across. While far from scientifically minded, Rarity did seem to realize, at least a little, just how unusual this ultra-pure water was.
"So these... gemstones, that aren't gemstones... are ice?" Rarity reasoned, looking at the torc sitting on the wooden bust.
"Magically crystallized," Twilight answered, and turned as they both heard Spike come up the stairs. The little dragon had a medium sized, carefully wrapped case in his hands. Thick thread kept the entire package bundled up.
"This is it, right?" he asked, lifting it up so Twilight could take hold of it with her magic.
"Just what we needed, Spike! Thank you!" Twilight Sparkle sounded almost giddy as she opened the infrequently used case. Within the bundle, a much smaller cylinder emerged, looking more like a liquor flask than a proper magical vial. It was a far cry from the test tubes and expensive crystal ampoules downstairs.
"There used to be a time when this," she said, pointing at the metal flask caught in her telekinetic aura. "Was worth a hundred times more than gold. It's still pretty expensive, actually."
"Is that why you probably haven't used it in..." Spike tried to guess. "I don't even know how long?"
"Not since you were little, when I started learning basic alchemy under Princess Celestia." Twilight cocked her head at the metal flask. It was impossible to tell if there was even any water in it anymore. She gave it a little shake. "There's still some in here!"
"I still don't quite see why this water, however purified it has become, is so special." Rarity stood back up, determined to watch whatever Twilight did next.
"Truly pure water was considered to be impossible to actually make," Twilight said, trotting over to the torc, and leaning it - and the bust - on its side. "In some alchemical and philosophical circles, there is power in trying to achieve the impossible. Because water always has some tiny impurity, no matter how hard or how long it was processed, some ponies believed 'True Water' would take the form of a perfect element, transforming whoever made or it drank it into a similarly perfect being."
"Some sort of philosopher stone, I guess?" she speculated and shrugged. "That's all ancient history, but highly purified water does have magical properties under certain conditions. When magically frozen, for example, it doesn't melt or warp when exposed to heat. Highly precise lenses are sometimes made out of magically frozen pure ice, and... in ancient times..."
She activated some kind of switch on the flask's nozzle, and a drop of sparkling clear water fell.
Right into the empty depression in the torc.
"They called it a Captured Star."
The moment the drop hit the concave pit, it froze and crackled, loud enough to hear. It seemed impossible that such a small object could produce such a sound, like a glass shattering. Twilight ignored it, focused on her task, and quickly spun around the torc and the wooden bust. Another drop fell, landing into the second depression. The sound repeated itself, and this tiny sphere of water also crystallized into a perfect, pure orb.
Setting the bust and the relic back in place, Twilight trotted back, wide eyed.
"Wow. Wow!" she enthused, excitedly clapping her hooves together. "It actually worked! Wow! And that sound! It must've been an exo-magical reaction!"
Almost Pinkie-like, she started examining the newly restored torc from every angle, inspecting it from one side and then the other and then from below, and then from above. She even reached out to touch it... only to quickly draw back at the last second.
"No. Wait. No touching," she reminded herself in a quiet voice. "No touching until you know what it does! Remember rule number fifty seven..."
"Twilight?" Rarity asked, remaining far enough away so as not to trip the other unicorn up as she pranced around.
"Hm?" Twilight suddenly appeared to the fashionista's left side. "Oh! Sorry! This is just so interesting!"
"Well...?" she asked. "Is it magical, or...? What exactly happened?"
"I have absolutely no idea."
Twilight's deadpan response prompted Rarity to shake her head in despair.
"No!" Twilight stared into her eyes. "I really have no idea! Isn't that amazing! Isn't that exciting!?"
"If you say so," Rarity replied, taking two steps back and forcing her friend to quickly regain her balance or fall forward.
"Yes, well, thanks to you, I think this afternoon will be very interesting indeed!" She quickly composed herself, the silly high from a moment ago being put away for later. When she was alone. Alone with so many books to read and so many experiments to run!
"Before that," she reined herself in again, and pointed at Rarity. "We need to cover your training for today."
"Yes, I do suppose we must," Rarity agreed, her enthusiasm not quite up to task. "What outlandish spectacle am I to make of myself today?"
"That depends entirely on you," Twilight replied with a little grin. "Today, you're going back to school."
"School. Kindergarten to be exact."
Rarity blinked, twice, just in case this Twilight had been replaced by some sort of mirage or doppelganger. An insane one. Or perhaps she was actually Pinkie Pie in a clever disguise?
"You must be joking," Rarity said, finally. "You must be."
"I am absolutely not joking," the town librarian and eccentric Princess's apprentice replied, still with her grin intact. "You are going to kindergarten today. That's your training."
Rarity raised an elegant eyebrow. "Really?"
"I guess I'll explain it from the beginning," Twilight Sparkle began, her mind drifting back to the not so distant past...
"Remember when I said that ancient ponies put stock in achieving the impossible? When I was learning magic from the Princess, one of her favorite tricks was to ask me to do either something nearly impossible or something completely impossible. In the former case, I quickly learned that what she wanted was to see me either cheat or find some roundabout way to do what she wanted. In the latter case, she mostly wanted to see me try."
"So, she'd say something like..."
"Twilight Sparkle!" Celestia declared with a smile. "Today's assignment is to find a human and ask him his name!"
"Ah, Twilight Sparkle! Today's assignment is to tell me, in your own words, what a star smells like!"
"Twilight, have you read this fascinating novel about this Daring Doo character? It says here, she found the recipe for dragon butter. Can you imagine it? Dragon butter! I would love some for my toast tomorrow morning. Why don't you look into that!"
"You get the idea," Twilight grumbled, one eye twitching. "The Princess especially liked the human ones. What kind of music would a human like? How much wood could a human chop if a human could chop wood? Ugh...! Anyway, after one of those failed assignments, I returned to her empty-hooved."
"Twilight Sparkle!" she declared, but with a titter proving she wasn't serious. "You have failed me, for the last time!"
"I wasn't too worried, since I could tell she was holding back laughing. But then she said..."
"As punishment, you can spend tomorrow in magic kindergarten."
"I laughed, thinking it was a joke. But then she said..."
"I'm not kidding." Celestia loomed over her fully grown but still much smaller student.
"Magic kindergarten!?" Twilight-the-student gasped, one eye wide and the other shrunken to a pinprick. "Wh- wh-"
"It's just a shame you'll be the only grown up pony there!" she added with a mischievous grin, her wings wide behind her in anticipation and amusement. "Oh well!"
Rarity boggled. "She actually...?"
"Sent me to magic kindergarten. Yes, she did." Twilight nodded, remembering it well. "I spent the rest of the day thinking about what she had said, especially the fact that it was a 'shame' that I was going to be the only grown up pony in the class. Everypony was sure to laugh at me! That was when I got the idea: I didn't have to be the only grown pony in the class!"
"You didn't?" Rarity asked, but Twilight didn't answer. Not right away. She waited.
And Rarity got it.
"Of course!" she realized, blue eyes wide. "An illusion spell!"
"I studied the spell and disguised myself as a filly," Twilight confirmed, nodding slowly. "I almost made it to the end of the day, too... but I lost my cool, the spell broke, and everypony laughed at me."
"The next day, Princess Celestia said that since I had so-ooo much fun in kindergarten, that I could spend a week there. So she sent me to another, different magic kindergarten for five days." Twilight noted the end of the story with pride, "And I went those five days without the illusion breaking even once."
"So I have to maintain this illusion all day?" Rarity asked, seeing now what her so called training was based on. She didn't sound confident in her chances. She was already quite skilled with illusionary magic, but this was different than a short ten minute presentation or fashion show. This was an intricate, body-wide illusion maintained for hours on end.
"I guess I don't have to pretend to keep you in the dark at this point," Twilight replied, and answered honestly. "First, you don't have to keep the illusion up all day."
"Oh, thank goodness, I-"
"Just all school-day!"
"Second," Twilight continued, grinning at Rarity's put-out expression. "This exercise will test you, not only on endurance, but on finesse. You'll need to maintain an illusion that is contact-sensitive, around dozens of ponies - even if they are very young - all while interacting with them and multi-tasking. If you can do this, then you'll have no problems either using illusions or countering them during a duel."
"But," Rarity protested, already starting to resign herself to this latest (potential) humiliation. "I don't know an illusion spell quite like this."
"I'll use it on you, and then you just need to maintain it," Twilight assured her, and put a hoof to her shoulder in comfort. "Don't worry! Of course... if the illusion breaks, you won't be able to re-cast it... so make sure it doesn't break, and make sure you don't lose your focus, and you'll be fine!"
"Wonderful," the fashionista remarked, dreading the upcoming day's 'training.' "Is that all?"
"Well, maybe one other thing..." Twilight remarked, and lifted a hoof-
A hoof with a tennis ball in it.
"No. More. Tennis. Balls."
- - -
"Hello everypony! I'm Dewdrop Dazzle! Wonderful to meet you!"
Rarity smiled through the illusion. From her perspective, Cheerilee appeared to be staring at her chest rather than her face. Of course, from the school teacher's perspective, Rarity was a pint sized little pony with an aqua blue coat, purple eyes and a pink and yellow mane that fell over the left side of her face and neck. The color scheme was not Rarity's preference in design for her alter ego, which Twilight had considered to be "Perfect! The more you dislike how you look, the better! You should never get too comfortable in your own illusion!"
Hence, Rarity - now Dewdrop Dazzle - stood at the front of her little sister's class. Behind her, her name had been written on the blackboard in chalky, but elegant and flowery script. Even if it wasn't her real name, the least she could do was present it with a little style and flourish! Twilight had refused to say whether Cheerilee was aware of the classroom deception or whether she was playing along or what.
"Best you don't know," the librarian had said, wagging a hoof and sporting a mischievous grin.
To Dewdrop Dazzle, that probably meant: "She has no idea!"
Heavenly bodies, this was a recipe for disaster.
"My, what lovely penmareship you have, Dewdrop!" Cheerilee remarked, staring at the name on her board and then back to the rest of the class. "Everypony, why don't we all introduce ourselves to our new transfer student?"
"Hi, Dewdrop Dazzle!" came the chorus from around the classroom.
Followed by the little fillies and colts introducing themselves. So far: so good. No pony recognized her through the illusion. The biggest danger was in physical contact. Anypony waving a hoof above her head could well catch themselves on her real mane, or even end up poking her eye. Just sitting in these tiny seats was going to post an uncomfortable and unwelcome challenge.
Lost in her own thoughts, Rarity - which was to say: Dewdrop Dazzle - missed a few of the introductions from around the room. Still, she wasn't worried about that. She knew Sweetie's friends from school... most of them anyway. It wasn't terribly hard to recall which one was which. They were all such a cute bunch!
"Why don't you take a seat, Dewdrop?" Cheerilee gave her a gentle nudge forward.
"Thank you, Cheerilee-"
"Miss Cheerilee, please?" the older pony corrected, forgivingly.
Dewdrop nearly planted face in hoof.
"Miss Cheerilee, of course!" She laughed nervously. "I'll just be taking my seat!"
Okay: that probably didn't sound too relaxed.
'Relax you foal!'
She leisurely, but not too leisurely, and quickly, but not too quickly, took a seat. In retrospect, it may not have been all too wise to take the seat next to her little sister, but having Sweetie Belle close by was comforting. Dewdrop had been trying to keep her little sister out of Rarity's business - and this was getting confusing - suffice to say, Sweetie Belle did not know much about Twilight's bizarre training and it would be best if she remained unburdened by the whole misadventure that had descended on Ponyville and it's resident dressmaker.
Thank Celestia, she had no idea her sister was in disguise as a classmate!
Knowing poor Sweetie, she would have blurted it out five minutes into the charade.
"Now class, why don't we continue where we left off, with Equestrian vocabulary and sentence structure..."
No disrespect or offense to Miss Cheerilee, but there was not much to her teaching that could invigorate the mind of a mare her own age. Nor should there be, really. This was a class of young ponies, not an evening at night school or a seminar. Uncomfortably wedged between her desk and chair, and trying not to have her illusion come apart like an over-ripe melon, Dewdrop slowly but surely began to slump forward. It was hard to keep good posture in an uncomfortable chair when one was bored out of one's mind.
Thought straying again, she remembered the last seminar she had attended, back in Canterlot. It had been during a fashion exposition. Hoity had invited her but then disappeared for the entire event, leaving her to mingle freely. Guest speakers from across Equestria had held panels on the future of the industry and especially in the marketing of new fabrics and textiles. Two handsome unicorn brothers had been there, too, trying to sell a new "patent pending automatic weaver" of some sort or another. It had been a marvel of modern unicorn magi-technology, at least until it jammed.
What had their names been again? One of them had the most fabulous moustache...!
It took a moment to sink in that Cheerilee - Miss Cheerilee - had been calling her name.
"Oh! Oh, yes?" She quickly sat up straight, eyes forward.
The earth pony schoolteacher had a cross expression and tapped a ruler in the corner of her mouth against the blackboard. For emphasis, no doubt.
"Would you mind telling me which of these sentences contains an irregular plural noun?" she asked, despite the ruler between her teeth.
Dewdrop Dazzle stared at the three sentences written on plan, blocky text:
- The three pegasi had a race.
- Four dogs chased a ball.
- The stars were very bright outside.
Beneath her illusion, Rarity frowned. What in Equestria was an irregular plural noun?
Thinking quickly, she realized, of course: it was a noun! There were a few nouns in those sentences. A plural one, then. Those were... 'stars,' 'dogs,' and 'pegasi.' Naturally! One of them was irregular, then. Whatever that meant. Was this really elementary Equestrian?
"We're waiting," a high pitched voice joked from the front row. The source, easily identified by her snickering, was a rather self-satisfied looking little pony with a tiara on her head. Was that really allowed in school? What happened to the dress code?
"The... first one?" Dewdrop finally guessed, grinning anxiously at the still-waiting Cheerilee.
"That's correct," the schoolteacher replied, with a tone that implied she knew the supposed transfer had guessed the answer and gotten lucky. Dewdrop breathed a sigh of relief. Getting an elementary school question wrong? That would have been simply unforgivable, even if nopony knew it was really her.
"An irregular plural noun," Cheerilee explained, probably not for the first time. "Is one that we can not simply add an 's' or 'es' to at the end. Here are a few more examples, in several categories..." She took the chalk in-hoof and wrote on the blackboard. "A single leaf becomes several leaves. One mouse in a house can mean many mice hiding where you can't see them. Some nouns are the same in singular and plural, like sheep."
She turned to the class, continuing the lesson.
"Who here can name other irregular plural nouns? Let's go around the room. Remember that in Equestrian, the transformation of a singular that ends in a 'y' is not always irregular. 'Donkeys' is regular while 'ponies' is technically irregular..."
Around they went, in a less than organized fashion, as students yelled out whatever words they could come up with. Hoof and Hooves, Tooth and Teeth were quickly taken, and as the class thought up ever more exotic words, Cheerilee sorted them into various types on the board: 'oes' transformations, 'ies' transformations, and so forth. A filly with a curly red mane quickly added two exotic additions, displaying her knowledge of the material: 'ae' and 'ices.' That one was definitely the study-bug of the group.
It actually wasn't terribly boring.
Which, from Dewdrop's unique point of view, certainly had to be seen as a credit to Cheerilee's teaching and personality. She loved her job, and it was reflected in how engaged she was with her students. Sadly Sweetie Belle appeared to lose interest once her teacher went back to constructing example sentences of some of the suggested words. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, too, began to appear less than studious.
When Dewdrop finally saw her sister taking notes, she took a moment to chide herself. Sweetie did well enough in school! Of course she was paying attention. Though she really should learn to use her magic to write; it allowed for much more attractive use of script. Still, at least she was diligent.
And then Sweetie Belle, her dear sister, folded her note up, tapped Scootaloo on the back, and passed her studious notes off to her friend. To copy. Surely.
Scootaloo hunched over, opened the note, and clearly tried to restrain a laugh.
Passing notes in class!
"Sweetie Belle!" Dewdrop leaned over to whisper. "Just what are you doing?"
"Nothing!" the other filly whispered back.
"You're going to get in trouble if you pass notes. What would your - I mean, don't pass notes!"
"I won't get in trouble if you don't tell on me," Sweetie hissed back, and looked away with a huff.
Dewdrop sat in her chair and stewed. Sweetie Bell was definitely going to get a talking to later. It would have been nice to say things got better as the day wore on, but as they often did, things got progressively worse. After Cheerilee turned the subject to mathematics, Sweetie all but began to zone out. Dewdrop knew that expression well! It was the same 'I'm bored! You better keep an eye on me!' look that she had seen in her Boutique many times before. Usually right before she didn't keep an eye on her sister, freeing her to cause some trouble in an attempt to be useful or productive or creative.
That aside, though - and not to tempt fate - things were going quite swimmingly!
- - -
Despite the encroaching chill of fall, the weather was still pleasant enough to allow everypony to eat and play on the grounds surrounding the schoolhouse. It was one of the few times all the various grades could mix together, though they tended to segregate by age group. Older colts came together with some of the mares to race or play hastily organized team sports; some of the pegasi, a minority in Ponyville's school system, practiced flying; many others just relaxed, enjoying their time away from lessons, blackboards, and well meaning teachers.
The Cutie Mark Crusaders had their own reasons for getting together at recess.
"Lemme see what ah got for lunch today... looks like apple fries! Apple juice! Apple sauce! And Apple noodles!"
"Apple noodles?" Scootaloo leaned over from where she sat to take a look for herself. "Those don't look much like noodles to me."
"Ah think it's a Manehattan recipe," Apple Bloom replied, holding up a round, foil-wrapped dish from her lunch box. Inside was an orange crumb-encrusted casserole with a whiff of cinnamon. "It may look a little funny, but it's good! Wanna try some?"
"Uh... No, I'll just take your word for it."
The three fillies ate quickly under the shade of a well manicured oak tree, many of the leaves already mottled with reds and oranges not yet ready to fall to the ground. Acorns, though, were in abundance, freely trampled into the ground by playful pony hooves. Those not so interred were quickly requisitioned by a large colony of Ponyville's tame squirrels. Scootaloo finished first, her lunch being granola bars and energy drink. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom took only a little longer, though the former picked at her small lunch as much as she ate it.
"Hey, Sweetie Belle, there something wrong?" Scootaloo asked, already having found a large red and blue ball to occupy herself with. She wasn't so occupied she couldn't pick up on her friend's moods, especially when they were pretty obvious.
Sweetie shook her head. "I've just been thinking... about my sister Rarity."
"Ya mean about how she was doing that weird balance-on-a-log thing yesterday?" Apple Bloom asked, packing up her cleaned place and finished drink. With a little click, she closed her lunchbox and put it behind her.
"Mom and dad didn't wanna talk much about it, but even before yesterday I noticed her acting a little strange." Sweetie Belle glanced down at her salad, mostly finished, and then back up at her best friends. "I don't know if it'll help us get our cutie marks or anything... but if you guys want to help me...?"
"Of course we'll help!" Scootaloo spoke first, grinning happily. "Like you even need to ask!"
"Yeah! We didn't get our cutie mark crusader spies, counter-spies, or spy wars cutie marks last month, but that doesn't mean we can't get some other kinda investig- investigative... cutie marks!" Apple Bloom pumped a hoof. "I bet ya already have some kinda plan, right, Sweetie Belle?"
"A plan. Well, yeah, kinda." The little white unicorn turned to her side, picking up her book bag and opening it in front of her. "I figured... my sister seems to write a lot to Prince Blueblood, so maybe one of their letters says what the problem is? It must be pretty serious for Rarity to be willing to get soaking wet over."
"Or make a scene like she did yesterday!" Scootaloo bluntly added. "Course, it was pretty fun hittin' her with tennis balls!"
"Ah'm kinda glad we didn't get a cutie mark for that. A throws-things-at-other-ponies cutie mark? That'd just be weird."
"So these are the letters?" Scootaloo asked, as Sweetie Belle finished picking the handful of scrolls and envelopes out of her bag.
"A bunch of them, anyway," Sweetie replied, spreading them out on the cool grass. "I didn't have time to check the dates."
"Ah thought ya said she was hiding these from ya?" Apple Bloom held one of the scrolls, tied with red thread, up to eye level. It even had a little velvet bag to keep it in. Fancy!
"She just left them lying around. It was a lot easier to pick up a few while she wasn't looking!" Sweetie Belle, livened up by the participation of her friends in her attempt to find out what was wrong with her sister, really did not see how this plan could go wrong. Really. Not yet, anyway.
"We've only got a little more time before class starts again, so let's get to it!" Scootaloo declared, arbitrarily swiping one of the envelopes. Slipping out the paper inside, she started reading only to make a disgusted face. "Aw, it's all mushy lovey-dovey stuff!"
Apple Bloom wasn't quite sure what to make of the letter she picked first.
"Ah don't even know what a buncha these words mean. What language is this? Prancy?"
She could at least recognize it, since she had learned to speak Prancy. For a few hours, anyway, thanks to Heart's Desire and some creative zebra alchemy.
That had been an odd day.
"Not this one," Sweetie said, carefully putting the scroll back in its case with the string.
"Hey, Scootaloo, what's this word? This one here?"
"Hm." Sweetie Belle finished the letter, even checking the reverse side. "Not this one either."
"Hey, Scootaloo. See this word? Quee- cue-es, no, wait. Kwee-es-ents? Hey, Scootaloo, are you listenin' ta me?"
Sweetie looked up from her letter to help Apple Bloom with whatever new word was giving her difficulty. Scootaloo seemed completely immersed in one of Rarity's letters. She hardly even noticed her earth pony friend poking her on the side.
And why were her wings starting to flare out?
"This one is too hard!" Apple Bloom finally gave up on Blueblood's scroll and decided to instead investigate just what had her pegasus friend so distracted. Leaning over and stretching her neck, she started reading aloud:
"My dear Prince. Your last letter left me a titter for our reunion. In return, I think it only fair to ask if you remember that summer's day you reserved the spa for us. Do you remember, my beloved stallion, how..." Apple Bloom's voice trailed off, her lips moving but not forming words.
"Yeah," Scootaloo muttered, though not to any question in particular. "This is an interesting letter."
"Wouldn't that hurt?" Apple Bloom asked, seriously contemplating the matter. "The animals on the farm sure don't do it that way."
"What are you two talking about?" Sweetie Bell demanded, only to gasp. "Quick! Put them away!"
It only took a moment for Apple Bloom to see what she meant. Two very familiar fillies were headed over, no doubt looking to cause trouble. She scrambled to scoop up the letters on the ground, grass and all, dumping them into her arms and them making for Sweetie's bag. The little unicorn, meanwhile, tried to get the last offending letter out of her other friend's hooves without ripping it.
"Scootaloo! Come on!"
"Just - just a second. This can't be right. I just have to read it one more time to be sure."
"Well, well, well, what do we have here?"
At the sound of Diamond Tiara's voice, even Scootaloo managed to bring herself into the here and now. The cutie mark crusaders glared at Ponyville's richest, most spoiled little filly. Silver Spoon wasn't exactly welcome either, especially since she was basically attached to the other filly's flank half the time. The two were the only fillies in the school to wear actual jewelry to class, as if everypony didn't know who their parents were and how much money they had.
Silver Spoon, gray on gray with her mane in a fashionable braid, stuck out her tongue in childish pique. Clearly, she didn't quite respect the Very Important Business that the cutie mark crusaders were oft involved in. Very Important.
"Look at these blank flanks!" she said, raising her voice to add volume to Diamond Tiara's more soft spoken condescension. "What sort of stupid schemes do you think they're up to this time?"
Diamond Tiara sighed in mock despair. "How long has it been again? More than a year? Pumpkin Cake will probably get her cutie mark before you foals do."
"Nuh-uh! She's barely a few months old!" Sweetie Belle declared, having clearly identified a logical fallacy in the other filly's supposition. "There's no way she'll get a cutie mark before we do-"
"Oooooh," she realized with a pout. "I get it. Anyway!" She pointed dramatically at the two interlopers. "At least we don't smell! Smell bad. Because you don't shower. Or bathe. You're smelly."
"I hope you three aren't holding out for a trading-insults cutie mark," Diamond Tiara quipped.
"What do you care?" Apple Bloom intervened, just finished stuffing Sweetie's bag full of notes and grass.
"Yeah!" Scootaloo declared, pointing... and then trying to smooth her wings out.
"I would, but you three and actual reading materials, all existing in the same space?" Tiara smirked. "Something's up. Isn't that right, Silver Spoon?"
The other filly chuckled. "Maybe they're reading about the cutie marks they'll never have. I bet they never get cutie marks!"
"Not very creative, but whatever," Diamond Tiara didn't spare her friend from her share of criticism. "Since we came all the way over here, why don't you tell us what you're up to? It'll make for some after-lunch entertainment."
"No way!" all three cutie mark crusaders declared in unison-
"These are my sister's!" One of the crusaders just couldn't stop while she was anywhere near ahead. "You'll never get your hooves on them!"
Scootaloo and Apple Bloom just stared at their unicorn comrade.
"Oops?" Sweetie Belle chirped.
"Can you even imagine?" Scootaloo snickered. "This one letter would just blow their little minds!" She then glared at her wings, still poofed out. "Arg! Stupid wings! Stay down!"
"Now I'm really curious. Why don't you just-"
The roar came not from Crusader, Tiara or Spoon. Instead, the new transfer student from Canterlot seemed to be running in their direction, hell on hooves. Actual honest-to-Celestia steam seemed to be billowing out of her flattened ears and a crazed look filled her eyes with a primal fury. The five fillies could only stand frozen in place, stunned, at the oncoming demon that was an enraged Dewdrop Dazzle.
"You give me those letters right this instant!!"
It took a moment for the demand to sink in... and for a response to percolate.
"N - no way!" Sweetie Belle yelled back, and with what little magic she had she made a grab for her bag and ran for it. Apple Bloom and Scootaloo, with more excitement than was probably natural in little fillies their age, jumped between the crazy transfer student and their friend.
"Those aren't yours!" Apple Bloom yelled, setting her hooves in the ground and bracing herself.
"Yeah! So back off!" Scootaloo, not one to wait, charged in on all fours.
Diamond Tiara and Silver Spoon could only stand, dumbfounded, and watch as the charging Dewdrop Dazzle juked to the left, jumped and twirled acrobatically overhead, neatly leaping right over both Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and themselves. As she passed overhead, something invisible managed to lightly smack both fillies in the face... and then the aqua-colored blur was gone.
"What." Diamond Tiara gaped.
Silver Spoon touched a hoof to her cheek. "The?"
"Heck!" Apple Bloom cursed, racing past the duo. "Let's go!"
Followed a second later by another blur of amber and purple.
Sweetie Belle's little legs carried her clear over a sandbox, pilfered letters and book bag slung over her shoulder. Fillies and colts in the grade below flattened themselves and stared up as another figure, and then another, and then another bounced right over them in a madcap chase around the schoolyard. Around another tree and between two bushes, Sweetie Belle dashed through a trotting course, startling the pair of runners working off lunch by cantering around the school.
'How?!' her pursuer couldn't help but curse. 'How can she run so fast with such little legs?'
Four skid marks ripped up a long patch of grass as Sweetie Belle cut, hard, and ran right. The sudden course change nearly threw Dewdrop, whose longer legs - outside the illusion - struggled to make the same tight turn on already uprooted sod. Her target was back to running in a straight line.
A line that took her right into and through, a hoofball game.
Naturally, the universe working as it did, the ball ended up nestled purely by chance in the speedy little unicorn's bag. Beneath her illusion, it took all the self control she had for Rarity not to scream, "COME ON!"
"Is that out of bounds?"
"Oh, what? Hey!"
"Catch. That. Filly!" One of the older players yelled.
And, in the span of a few seconds, it seemed as if half the school was on Sweetie Belle's hooves.
"WHY!" Dewdrop Dazzle could be heard to scream. "Why is this happening today of all days?!"
- - -
"Detention. I can't believe I have detention."
"You deserve it. I was just keeping my sister's stuff safe!" Sweetie Belle, clearly, didn't like her situation much either. The two sisters, though only one of them knew the relation, had been left to stand outside the classroom on either side of the door to 'think long and hard about what they did and how ponies could have been hurt by their recklessness.'
"Mom and dad are gonna kill me!" she lamented, banging the back of her head against the wall.
"You bet they are!" Dewdrop promised. "What were you thinking going through m-mmMissss-" good recovery there. "Rarity's stuff?"
"None of your business!" Sweetie continued to sulk.
Between them, through the wooden door, they could hear the class inside in progress. Sweetie would be saddled with extra homework to make up for what she was missing. Dewdrop too, though Rarity had no intention of actually doing homework, no matter what her bibliomaniac friend-turned-trainer Twilight Sparkle had to say about it. A line had to be drawn somewhere, for Celestia's sake.
"You're sure Miss Cheerilee has all the letters?" Dewdrop asked, closing her eyes and trying to keep her illusion spell up. It had come disturbingly close to slipping during that insane chase around the school.
"None of your business."
"For your information, it is my..." The disguised unicorn cut herself off. There was no point going down that road, not now. "I mean: those letters weren't yours to take or to read, Sweetie Belle." She sighed, seeing that her little sister was intent on ignoring her. Of course, there were supposed to be quiet in the hall, not having a conversation.
"How would you have liked it if I read that letter you passed to Scootaloo?"
"That's different!" Sweetie protested, glaring for all of second before looking downcast. "I didn't do it to be mean."
She scuffed her hoof against the hallway floor.
"I just... I was just worried. I just wanted to help," she muttered, wiping the tears from her eyes. Then she turned defiant again. "I don't even know why I'm talking to you. You got me in so much trouble."
"Sweetie Belle..." Rarity, beneath the illusion, had to fight herself not to try and hug her sister, seeing her so distraught. The source of it, really, was sitting right outside Cheerilee's homeroom. The whole reason why Sweetie Belle had been so desperate to try and find out what was wrong.
"I kind of know your sister," she tried to explain, since dramatically declaring 'Sweetie Belle - I am your sister!' was likely a bit too over the top. "Miss Rarity. She talked about you a lot, you know? I bet if you ask her, and show her how worried you are, she'll do everything she can to explain things and make you feel better."
Dewdrop smiled, seeing Sweetie give her a curious look.
"I'm sure she never meant for you to be so worried about her," she said, and Sweetie smiled back before looking down at her hooves. After that they kept silent, letting the time slowly trickle by. It was actually a bit relaxing. Dewdrop found it much easier to concentrate on the illusion when there was nothing else to interact with or offer distraction.
If only it wasn't leaving her so tired; had Twilight really spent days like this?
It seemed impossible, even for her.
"Yes, Swee-e-ee - oh...!" Dewdrop planted her face in her hoof and turned to see her little sister grinning triumphantly. "I can't believe I fell for that."
"How did you figure it out?" She had to know.
Sweetie Belle blushed and shrugged. "I dunno. I just had a funny feeling when you were chasing me earlier. Like it was familiar."
"So much for nopony knowing," Rarity-as-Dewdrop replied, rolling her eyes. "Let's just keep this between us, shall we? No need to tell Twilight."
"Tell Twilight what?" Sweetie asked right back. "I still don't know what's going on."
"I'll explain it later."
"And you meant what you said before?"
"And you aren't mad at me?"
"And you aren't mad at me?"
"You aren't mad at me."
"You aren't mad at me? Rarity? Yeah. You're still mad, aren't you?"
Before they could go on, however, the door opened.
Miss Cheerilee stuck her head out, glaring at the two fillies. "Have you two learned your lesson?"
"We sure have, Miss Cheerilee!" Sweetie Belle answered, looking up with dewy puppy-dog eyes. "No more rough-housing! Promise!"
"Ah, yes. It is an incident never to be repeated," Dewdrop replied, trying to look more contrite than she felt.
"Okay," the schoolteacher decided, opening the door wide. She rarely closed it. "Come on in. We have a special guest arriving soon."
Dewdrop followed Sweetie into the classroom, one question left on her lips.
- - -
Inside the Dewdrop disguise, Rarity's eyes were wide in shock.
But of course. Of. Course. With her luck today, who else would the 'special guest' be?
"Everypony," Cheerilee addressed her class with a happy smile. "Let's all give a warm welcome to our special guest for today. We're very lucky to have her visiting the school..."
"Lady Antimony," she finished, bowing her head to the mare standing before the classroom. "The Baroness of Mareseilles."
It was Lady Antimony in the flesh. The noblemare was wearing a delicate seashell and honeydew chiffon shawl and saddle, undoubtedly custom designs she had brought with her from Prance. A cloak, different in color than the one she had worn to the Boutique, was loosely and comfortably draped over her shoulders. Her mane, too, had been styled and done up in a looped knot high on the top of the head behind the horn, flanked by intricate curls. Dewdrop - Rarity - quickly identified it as a neoclassical look, and the shawl especially seemed to be of very intricate design.
If only she could get a closer look at it!
No. No. Now was not the time to think about fashion.
Antimony's new look also implied that while one of them had been training her toned flank off, the other had been spending hours at the mane stylist! That fact did little to brighten Dewdrop's mood.
"Hello, everypony," she greeted the class with stately little inclination of the head. "A pleasure to meet you."
A mixture of "Hello, Lady Antimony" and "Hello, Baroness Antimony" greeted the noblemare from all around the classroom. For her part, Dewdrop mumbled her own greeting. Antimony's perpetually half-lidded eyes passed over the class of fillies and colts and Dewdrop had to repress an involuntary shiver as that gaze came and went from her as well.
The illusion, however, held.
"Lady Antimony is here to talk about her home and about life as a member of a noble court," Cheerilee explained, and Dewdrop got the impression that the class had been given at least some forewarning about a guest. Only she had been caught unaware.
"Did everypony find Two Rivers and Prance on the map after school yesterday?" the teacher asked, and the classroom replied with a variety of yeses. "In that case, let's all listen carefully to what Lady Antimony has to say. I'm sure she'll be happy to answer questions when she's finished."
"Your Ladyship?" Cheerilee finished, bowing her head and walking back behind her desk.
"My little ponies," Antimony began, smiling warmly at the class of children. "As you know, I am Antimony. Though a Baroness, please informally address me as just 'Lady.' I was born twenty three years ago in northern Prance, in a family keep and estate in the country. My loving father was the great Duke, Lord Cruciger, and my mother the learned scholar and poet, Twinkling Star Light, second daughter of the late Duchess Dancing Star Spark. My Barony is the province of greater Mareseilles. Has anypony been to Mareseilles before?"
"Oh! I have!" Naturally, one little filly raised her hoof.
"How wonderful," Antimony replied, motioning for the little pony to stand up. "Would you please introduce yourself?"
"My name is Diamond Tiara!" the pink and lavender filly said, and gave a practiced bow. "My father is Filthy Rich and my mother is Patent Pending."
"I know those names," the noblemare commented after a polite pause. "Ah, yes, your father owns a retail franchise of some sort. Barnyard Bargains, I believe? Your mother is a noted inventor. I should like to meet her sometime. I assume you visited Mareseilles on business?"
"We were visiting family, Lady Antimony."
"I'll remember that." To Dewdrop, that phrase seemed just a little ominous. Then again, when it came to this mare, her opinions weren't exactly unbiased. "What did you think of my city, Diamond Tiara?"
The little filly took her seat again and bit her lip as she tried to remember.
"I was very little, but... I remember it being big. Not like Manehattan, with tall cloudscrapers, but very wide! With beautiful stone bridges and gardens and palaces and walls!"
"Yes. While some cities have grown upwards, like Manehattan, most older cities have grown outward as ponies settled around walls and along roads." Antimony began describing 'her city' of Mareseilles.
It was, to her credit, renowned as a beautiful and well maintained city and one of the jewels of Prance. 'Dewdrop' had seen pictures of it: more urban than most of the country, it boasted long, clean boulevards, wide and inviting streets and a large number of museums, churches, gardens and parks. More than even that, it was known as a city of palaces and villas built along a crystal clear and long-tamed river. The farmland around the city was dotted with rustic vineyards and unicorn monasteries dedicated to the study of magic. Ironically, the one thing it clearly lacked was the thing Antimony's father was most well known for: renovated and restored fortifications from the migration era.
The class listened patiently as she discussed more of her home and some of the noteworthy ponies it had produced over the centuries: composers, artists, inventors and statesponies of high office. All too quickly, however, fillies and colts began to slump or rest their heads on their hooves. Glancing over at Miss Cheerilee for some sort of assistance - a fact 'Dewdrop Dazzle' found secretly amusing - Lady Antimony quickly and wisely opted to skip ahead to the question and answer part of her presentation.
This was something even Dewdrop found more interesting: there was little information on Antimony in the public record. She raised a hoof and hoped to get at least one question in before the noblemare left for the afternoon.
It seemed Antimony had a favorite filly already.
"What's it like being a Baroness?" the little pony asked, conspicuously adjusting the expensive tiara in her mane.
"It is a lot of work," Antimony replied, always smiling. Oddly, Dewdrop got the feeling that she was genuinely smiling, at least this once. Even her eyes seemed to have lost their sense of bored, patient malice.
"The social functions we host are the most well publicized aspect of our duties as noble lord," she continued. "But they are only the public face of rulership. Parties are venues... opportunities... for alliances of interest to be made. It allows us to meet with other connected ponies and ply them for opinions or press them into compliance. Every social gathering is expensive and attracts attention; they are rarely held for pure personal amusement."
"To rule as a noble is also to bear great responsibility, bestowed on us by Fate and the grace of the Princesses." Here, those violet-red eyes turned on Dewdrop, just for a second. "You rule not for yourself, but as a member and representative of a noble family. Your actions reflect the greater desires of the family, and of the province, and of Equestria itself. Every noble hopes to bequeath a stronger, richer land to her son or daughter than she herself inherited."
"Don't you get to order ponies around, too?" Diamond Tiara blurted out, despite not being called on a second time.
"Some of them," Antimony answered with a sly look. "In practice, the only ponies most nobles 'order around' are our personal household, our guards, and our immediate subordinates."
"But - but aren't you in charge?" the filly protested.
"That is not quite how it works." The noblemare pointed to the class with her hoof. "There are four rows of desks in this classroom. Miss Tiara, let us call your row Prance. Apple Bloom, is it?"
Apple Bloom abruptly sat up. "Uh, yeah, but how did-"
"Let us call your row Whinnychester. To your left?"
"Silver Spoon!" The filly at the head of the row declared.
"Your row will be Bitaly. And the young pegasus on the leftmost row will represent Neighpon." Antimony neatly divided up the classroom. "Miss Cheerilee here will represent the Princess, at the head of the four rows. Imagine that every pony thus organized swears their allegiance to the one in front, with all four of you at the end of the row swearing allegiance to your teacher, the Princess. Together, you all represent roughly three million ponies."
"Diamond Tiara. Do you see how your authority is limited by this arrangement?" Antimony gestured to the front, at Cheerilee, and then behind her, to a chubby colt in the middle row. "You take orders from the Princess, and give orders to those immediately below you. Whether those orders are followed by your classmate depend on your relationship with those you rule. If... um... what is your name, little colt?"
"Truffle," the smoke colored colt said in little more than a shy whisper.
"If Truffle there is not an honorable pony, then he will not follow your orders or he will scheme behind your back. If he is in a stronger social position than you, then he will attempt to make you subordinate to him. Due in part to the great size of Equestria, a strict hierarchy of lords and ladies is necessary for society to function, from the divine pinnacle..." Antimony swept her hoof from 'Princess Cheerilee' to Diamond Tiara, Truffle, and blue coated filly behind him. "To the lowest Earl, to even the most humble stable-hoof."
"While the actual political organization of every province in Equestria varies, this gives you an idea of how the powers of even great lords are limited by personal strength and charisma."
Antimony then explained, "For example, in my family domains, all ponies now swear allegiance first to their Duke and then to their Earl or Mayor. In turn, their Earl vows obedience to their Baron, and every Baron gives their oath to their Duke. This is the system passed down to us by our wise matron and great mother, Lady Arsenic. Barons and Earls thus lose even more independent power in exchange for a more... progressive system of governance."
"Hey, wait! Ah just noticed somethin'!" Apple Bloom spoke up, twisting around in her chair. "Mah row's only got Twist in it, but Diamond Tiara's row has two other ponies! And Scootaloo's row has both Sweetie Bell and Snips and Snails in it, and they're the only three unicorns in class... except Dewdrop, I guess. But these rows ain't even!"
"No, they are not," Antimony agreed. "Not every province is as rich or as powerful as every other. Cities like Manehattan, Cloudsdale and Stalliongrad have disproportionately more power than their size would indicate. Cloudsdale in particular has tremendous influence, as it contains the largest pegasus population in the country."
"If I were to continue the analogy, I would say... Equestria is made up of thirteen rows. Five with one pony in it, four with three ponies, and four with two ponies."
As Antimony spoke, a small piece of chalk sketched out thirteen rows of different length on the blackboard, connected at the top by a pyramid. There, at the top of the pyramid that was Equestria, Antimony drew a globe with lines around it: a living sun.
"The balance of power is here, at the very top: it is found in the unquestioned strength and majesty of Canterlot, of the immortal Princesses, and of the noble Stable of Lords. And, of course, in the network of trade and friendship that ties our country together..."
"But you see how one's word is the cement that binds Equestria's social order together," Antimony concluded, looking around the classroom. "The greatest privilege of a noble mare is to serve and strengthen her realm, and to act with strength and honor. It is a privilege any noble must be prepared to put her life on the line for. Diamond Tiara: that is what it means to be a Baroness. My apologies for such a lengthy response, but it is a complicated question to pose. Authority does not mean autonomy."
"Any other questions?" Cheerilee asked, but most of the class had become quiet.
Finally, one brave colt raised his hoof.
"Lady Antimony," the other chubby colt - really, Rarity couldn't help but think, colts these days did need to exercise more - spoke up, a rather goofy grin on his face. "You said a noble mare needs to be strong, right?"
"That is correct," Antimony replied.
"Do you know Trixie? Are you more powerful than her?"
"Trixie?" The name didn't seem to ring a bell and Antimony cocked her head in puzzlement. "I'm afraid I don't recall that name. Who is she?"
"The Great and Powerful Trixie!" Snips repeated, and then picked a target closer to home. "If you don't know her, what about Twilight Sparkle? She defeated an Ursa Minor!"
"Ah, yes. Twilight Sparkle, I do know, just as I am aware of her encounter with the Ursa Minor."
Dewdrop leaned in closer, finally and truly interested in Antimony's response. This: the subject of magic, was actually pertinent to her situation. If she were fortunate, she could even glean some information to help her in the upcoming duel.
"Twilight is the personal apprentice of the Princess herself, and by all I have read of her, she is a true magical genius," Antimony said, without even a hint of bitterness or reproach. If anything, she sounded a little proud of her distant cousin. "To add to this, she is also the Element of Magic and the fulcrum of the Elements of Harmony. We all expect great things from her. If I had to measure myself against such a mare, I believe I would be found wanting."
"Twilight Sparkle," she concluded. "I would expect her to be more powerful than myself, when it comes to most forms of magic."
Dewdrop didn't wait to be called on to ask, "Most forms of magic?"
Antimony didn't seem to have much worry explaining herself.
"Every since I was a little filly, trying to get my cutie mark, I have had problems controlling large star fields and auras. For you non-unicorns, that means the more magic I use, the harder it is for me to form it into anything useful. You may imagine it as a faucet. Turned just a little, you get the flow of water you desire, but turn it just a little more, and the steady stream becomes a blast. My sisters often found my situation very amusing, as they all mastered their magic at an early age."
"I resolved to master the arts of magic that required very little magical input, but that could benefit from a steady flow of energy," she said, and asked, "Can anypony here guess what those arts are? One of the unicorns maybe?"
"Oh! I know!" Sweetie Belle waved her hoof in the air and happily guessed, "Illusion magic!"
"That is one of them," Antimony confirmed. "Can anypony guess the other? Anypony at all? Perhaps I should demonstrate it, then." She trotted over to Scootaloo. "Excuse me, but you are...?"
"Scootaloo," the little pegasus answered, looking up at the tall noblemare.
"Hello, Scootaloo. Would you mind giving me one of your feathers for a demonstration?" Antimony inquired.
"Yeah, okay I guess." The only pegasus in the class, Scootaloo craned her neck to bite one of her loose feathers and plucked it with a wince. Lady Antimony levitated it out of Scoot's mouth, and into the air. She then passed it to Miss Cheerilee.
"Very carefully," she asked, "Could you hold this feather by the calamus?"
"I suppose so," Cheerilee agreed, cautiously biting down on the quill of the feather with her front teeth. "This isn't dangerous, is it?"
"Oh no, no danger at all. Just don't slip or touch the feather with your lips," Antimony replied with a reassuring smile. "That would be very bad."
Even as she finished speaking, the noblemare floated over a piece of paper, positioned it over the vane of the feather, and brought it down in a smooth motion. The stationary cut like it wasn't even there, and as Antimony brought it back up and down, repeating the motion, it shaved ever thinner strips of paper away. Like confetti.
Scootaloo's feather had been turned into a razor.
Then, for effect, Antimony put away the paper. A good thing, as Cheerilee was staring cross-eyed at the lethal weapon that she now held between her teeth. Replacing the letterhead, Antimony levitated out an apple from the teacher's desk. At the unicorn's will, it rotated and spun like a top before being introduced to the feather-blade. Within seconds, it had been diced into shredded peels of apple skin and flesh. Lastly, with the shredded apple still held in a magical field, Antimony lifted up a piece of chalk and dropped it into free fall.
It passed over and through the feather, neatly separating into two halves.
"I believe that should suffice for a demonstration," the Baroness decided, and raised an eyebrow. "You can give me the feather now. It's safe."
Releasing the quill, Cheerilee quickly stepped back and away as it floated, quite feather-like, to the ground. Antimony caught it before it could touch the ground and returned it to Scootaloo's desk. The little pegasus was very careful to touch it herself, just nudging it with a hoof before realizing it was back to normal.
"To alter the physical properties of an object to suit your desires without changing the appearance of said object," Antimony spoke up, raising her voice a little assure she was heard. "This is the essence of enchantment. When most discuss this art, they refer to it's utility: what spells can be attached to what object. Can this icebox be enchanted to keep my drink cold? Can this granary be enchanted to resist disease or repel pests and rodents? Can this torch or lamp be enchanted to burn, long after it should have extinguished?"
"Those are really only the simplest applications," she explained, and touched one of the thick textbooks on a shelf nearby. "At my desire, a book like this can become as light as a bubble."
Tossing the book into the air, it seemed to turn almost weightless. Like a bubble in the breeze.
"Should I wish it," she continued, but returned to the front of the class. "A feather can become as heavy as an anvil. A pillar of stone can become as malleable as jelly. Water can be as hard as glass. Straw as slippery as oil."
"Starswirl himself once said: a unicorn, at all times, strives for mastery over the world around him. When a unicorn's wishes and the world we call 'reality' are one and the same, then that being can be considered no longer a pony, but a transcendent being. Or, in his own words: invincible."
Antimony smirked, closing her eyes.
"No pony, even the Princesses, can be said to embody Starswirl's ideal, but that is why it is an ideal and not an actual goal. Since you are all here, and I have shown you my art of enchantment... why not also demonstrate... the power of my illusions?"
Lady Antimony's eyes opened, now bright red, and the classroom melted away.
Fillies and Colts gasped as desks disappeared, turning into dust. Cheerilee even reared as her desk and blackboard dissolved. The ceiling quickly followed, and as it disintegrated, a cloudy winter sky took it's place far overhead. Distant mountains where there should not have been any revealed themselves.
Dewdrop felt a change come over her, despite the illusion, and she looked around in a desperate bid to try and understand what was happening. Within a few heartbeats every trace of the classroom had been removed. The students were standing on a stone and straw covered parapet overlooking a citadel in the mountains. It was not built strictly to the Canterlot style, but in the older functional designs that had been copied from the Old Kingdom. Flags fluttered in the wind and the edge of a courtyard could be seen far below, studded with graves behind a beautiful ancient chapel.
It was not just the world around them that had been changed. Everypony had been dressed in a warm woolen parka, even Antimony herself. Dewdrop - Rarity - held up a hoof, feeling the chill of the air on it, but at the same time, the sheltering warmth of the garment she knew couldn't be there. This was one of Antimony's illusions?
This was... insane... it was impossible!
"Where - where are we?" Cheerilee asked, even more perplexed than Dewdrop likely looked. She was moving in a small circle, staring with wide eyes at the sudden change in scenery.
"This is one of my father's refurbished keeps," Antimony said, trotting over to the crenellated edge of the round stone turret that they had appeared on. "The castle stronghold of Gaskinring. I spent my foalhood here. By all means, have a look around. This illusion is not limited by the size of the room you believe yourselves to be in."
Dewdrop still couldn't believe what she was seeing. Or feeling. Or hearing.
A faint, drifting snow fell from the clouds overhead. She watched as Apple Bloom opened her mouth and caught one of the snowflakes, clearly feeling it and tasting it on her tongue. Other colts and fillies were running around, playing and exploring. Cheerilee seemed confused about just how to handle the situation, running back and forth to keep everypony in sight before deciding to treat the whole strange experience as a sort of field trip.
It was all just... so impossibly real.
"You don't seem to be enjoying my illusionary reality, my little pony."
Antimony's voice sent a chill down Rarity's spine, cocooned within her own illusion. She glanced over her shoulder at the older mare. Antimony looked like she knew. After doing all this, how could she not know? Could she not see through -
Rarity's heart stopped, as she saw it.
There was something behind the Baroness. Something shifting and dark, with a single light within. Was it another illusion? Was it a part of this impossibly realistic but unreal world? Hadn't anypony else noticed it? The shifting pool of starstuff floated behind Antimony's mane and disappeared from view.
"This illusion is... incredible," Dewdrop admitted, backing away.
"Why thank you!" Antimony, for just a second, seemed ignorant of just who she was speaking to. Then her eyes narrowed and her smile widened, just a little. "I suspect you'll enjoy more of my illusions should we meet again."
The older unicorn's eyes trailed wisps of ethereal carmine as she turned and trotted away.
'She knows. She knows who I am.'
Dewdrop quickly caught up with the rest of the class as they wandered around the crown of the castle and then descended inside. The stone walls felt real. The heat from the many fireplaces, some of them massive and highly ornate, all felt real. One of the colts, Snails, even stubbed his hoof on one of the stone steps. Which should have been impossible. It wasn't real. How could anypony hurt themselves against something that wasn't even real?
"I think it's time we got back to the classroom," Cheerilee finally said. By this time, they had walked from the roof of the castle, through great halls and furnished rooms, and down into the courtyard they had first seen from above. The only thing missing were other ponies. The castle had been empty.
"We don't... have to go back up there to go back, do we?" the schoolteacher asked. "I'm afraid this sort of thing really isn't my area of expertise."
"Don't worry. We never left the classroom so returning you is actually quite simple." Antimony closed her eyes, and the world suddenly shattered. The feelings, the sounds, the cold air and warm clothes, it all vanished. As if it were never there. No: it hadn't been there. No matter how good Antimony's illusions were, they hadn't actually been there.
The classroom returned - everypony was still in their seats. They hadn't even moved. At the front of the room, Lady Antimony grinned; a confident smile directed at one student in particular. It was no wonder she wasn't worried about the duel, only a day away. It made sense now.
'She's... she's too... too strong! This is insane!'
"When an enemy can not tell where their reality ends and my reality begins," the Baroness remarked with a dark chuckle. "It becomes clear in their eyes. First confusion. Then fear. Then panic... and finally, anguish." The illusions within her eyes danced like inner fire. "Or as I prefer to call it: understanding."
'Dewdrop Dazzle' remained silent as the class said their goodbyes to Lady Antimony and thanked her for taking the time to visit not just their class, but apparently all the classes being held. Her parting words had been an upbeat: "Certain others in my family may disagree, but I believe with all my heart that Equestria's true strength is forged not in a barracks or factory floor, but in a schoolroom. Everypony study hard and do your best!"
It was a nice sentiment, though Rarity couldn't see many of the students cheering for the "study hard" part of the Baroness's farewell. To say nothing of the "anguish, or as I call it, understanding" comment.
Having her leave and the normal class resume was a relief; the 'Dewdrop Dazzle' facade was still intact and the illusion holding. The day was almost over, and despite feeling emotionally and magically drained, Rarity took some personal comfort in having basically pulled off Twilight's task - a task she herself had considered nearly impossible. Perhaps she was underestimating herself? Invigorated, and in spite of her fatigue, she felt a surge of confidence: she had almost done it.
It was almost over!
It wasn't until a few minutes later, after Antimony left, that that bubble of confidence burst.
"Generosity. Let me see you sweat."
The voice had been little more than a whisper in her ear, but it echoed in Rarity's mind, and as she gasped in surprise she felt the hairs of her coat stand on end. The illusion - her own illusion - shimmered in front of her eyes, and looking down at her front legs she could see white sticking out from beneath retreating aqua. Panicking, Rarity redoubled her focus, horn glowing hard as she tried to hold the failing, fraying illusion spell together.
Cheerilee continued to speak, her back turned to the class, and every pony's eyes forward. No one noticed! No one saw! Not yet!
'Come on! Come on! Hold together!'
Seeing the illusion fade around her legs, and even around her mane, Rarity desperately tried to layer a replacement directly on top, fixing the failing spell with a patchwork of new ones. It also proved her undoing, as the glow from her horn and furious spellwork attracted the attention her failing illusion didn't. In the seat in front of her, Silver Spoon turned around to stare, confused. She was followed seconds later by Scootaloo, Sweetie Belle, that Truffle colt, and others. Even Cheerilee paused in her lesson to gape.
"D - Dewdrop Dazzle!" she finally cried out. "Just what are you doing, young lady?!"
"AH! Nothing! Wait!" Rarity stumbled back out of the too-small chair, waving her hooves. They were a mismatched quilt of replacement colors, each just a shade off of the ones below or above. Illusion spells normally came naturally to her - she was good at them! But suddenly everything was just going wrong or coming apart at the seams!
"I can explain this!" she cried. "It isn't what it looks like! Or, rather - rather! There is a good reason for this!"
"Dewdrop," a familiar voice whispered, and Rarity blinked, only to see Sweetie Belle holding onto her shoulders. "There's nothing wrong."
"Nothing wrong?" Diamond Tiara snapped, snaking her head in bemusement. "What were you doing? Casting magic on yourself?"
"Dewdrop," Cheerilee also spoke up. "Are you feeling alright? Do you need to see the nurse?"
Why - why were they still calling her that?
Couldn't they see...?
Rarity slowly got back into her seat, squeezing between it and her tiny desk. By all rights, by her own eyes, it looked like her illusion had failed. Hadn't it? She turned to Sweetie Belle - the only one in the room she knew, knew - and saw worry, but not panic.
She hadn't been revealed; the illusion hadn't failed.
It was - it was all -
- - -
"Ma'am?" Gewitter whispered, her gruff voice kept low as the pair left the school.
Trotting alongside the burly pegasus hussar, Lady Antimony squinted her eyes.
"As expected, Gewitter," she replied, looking up and inhaling the crisp afternoon air. "The Elements are powerful indeed, even in a dormant state. I don't feel so bad about being cautious earlier."
The pegasus guard bore a look of surprise, eyes wide, at her Lady's admission.
"Ma'am," she whispered again. "Is something wrong?"
The noblemare slowly shook her head in the negative. "Not at all, Gewitter. I only find that I am looking forward to tomorrow. It is merely tension. Excitement. Anticipation."
Antimony led the pair as they headed downtown. There were arrangements to make with the Mayor; the debt starved town of Ponyville was all but in her hooves. Once the local obstacles were sorted out and the Elements of Harmony cowed, Canterlot would fall into the laps of the Terre Rare without so much as a mutter of discontent. Her intended, that simpering fool Blueblood, would not long survive the consummation of their wedded bliss. No matter how uncooperative he wished to be. At last, at long last, the base of the pyramid that was Equestria would submit whole and entire to the sons and daughters of Lady Arsenic.
It would be divine justice, an earth pony's justice, two hundred years in the making.
"Tomorrow," she whispered. "Tomorrow, as dusk falls, I will humble an Element of Harmony. Tomorrow, I will seal the fate of a noble house. Tomorrow I take my place. I almost wish my dear husband-to-be could make it home in time to see me crush his little mare-toy." Antimony's sniffed in dismissive disdain. "Not that he will, but I'm sure he will try."
In a nearby marketplace, ponies called out their wares, appealing to passerby. Ponyville's town center boasted an idyllic little street market, so common in the country. Watching the common ponies in this communal place, for once free from offensive cameras and predatory intrusion, it reminded her of where she had come from: the powerbase that was the country, the dirt and bones and soul of Equestria. It was from this that she had risen to seize the richest Barony in Prance and win her father's love and respect. It was strength. Personal strength. The power of just one pony, like the Princess herself, to bend the world to her unwavering will.
That was what mattered.
"I just..." Antimony hesitated to give voice to her thoughts, and for a time, the two walked in silence. "I just don't understand her. That Rarity. Does she really think she can win? That a few days of training will enable her to pull off some miracle? Is she stubborn or just stupid? A smart mare would give in. A smart mare would already have given in. I have not been unreasonable. We could have been close friends and sisters."
Antimony closed her eyes, making sure not to look at anypony or anything nearby.
"It vexes me." Her brows twitched, but she kept her eyes firmly closed. "Tomorrow. I'll make her pay for troubling me so, Gewitter. I'll make her kiss my hoof and beg for mercy."