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Bells began to ring. Their tolling echoed throughout Canterlot, calling ponies to finish up their activities and chores. Nightmare Moon’s chariot rumbled over the city’s cobbles, drawn by a pair of her faithful Honour Guards toward one of the oldest buildings in the city. The Great Chantry of Canterlot was a massive complex of white marble and gleaming silver, its tall spires and graceful domes crowned with lance-like points, as though to guide the viewer’s eyes toward the stars above. The largest building in the city dedicated to the Enlightened Way predated even the palace itself, and indeed most of the city itself. Technically, at least. Repairs from centuries of wars and natural disasters had probably replaced every stone at least thrice over, with the exception of a few deep chambers and inner walls. Still, the spirit of the place flourished despite the ages.
The chariot pulled up in front of the Chantry’s grand doors, a massive but perfectly balanced pair of oaken gates, heavily carved with flowing, detailed geometric patterns. A portico held up by columns twisted to resemble unicorn horns stretched out from the facade, flanked by a pair of marble alicorns standing rampant with their wings spread wide and muzzles raised in triumph.
The throng of citizens outside the Great Chantry parted as the Empress stepped out of her chariot, followed by the soft clatter of little Twilight Sparkle hopping down at her hooves. It had taken only a little effort to overcome the filly’s scepticism toward religion with the lure of a new experience, and that was all the opening Nightmare Moon needed to introduce her to the Way. It had been considerably more difficult to convince her to wear a formal dress for the service. Even now, Twilight constantly shifted and plucked at the simple yellow silk outfit with her magic, grimacing at its unaccustomed bulk.
The Inquisitor followed her and took a place at her side, looking very official in his sharp matte black waistcoat, tidy, white shirt and red silk tie. He even wore the long, deep crimson cloak that she had suggested he wear to public events years ago. The outfit had quickly become the preferred garb of the Prime Minister – at least, when he needed to be seen by the people in an official light. Usually, the stallion opted for the foreboding black uniform of the Overwatch commander. She knew he was only here as a formality – and to annoy North Star. The Inquisitor made it clear from the start that he disliked the idea of the Enlightened Way. He was ambivalent at best on the idea of venerating long-gone alicorn spirits, and when he was having a bad night, outright scornful.
The milling throng gradually fell in behind them as the doors opened to the Empress. Before she crossed the threshold, she paused to exchange pleasantries with the ponies who would lead the service. Nightmare Moon knew each of them as pillars of the religious community of Canterlot. A cerulean blue earth stallion was dressed in robes of silvery-white embroidered with curling, abstract patterns. The brown trim on his robe indicated his status as the Chanter of the ceremony. Next to him was Hierophant North Star. Her robes were similar, but trimmed with indigo, denoting her high status in the Enlightened Way. As Canterlot was not her diocese, though, she would only assist in the night’s ceremonies. A pegasus mare, crimson red with a beautiful golden-blond mane, would be leading the service. She wore robes of the same silk as the other two, but her patterns were picked out in golden thread. This was High Praise, the High Priestess of Canterlot. The rest of the small group of clergy wore similar robes, all with different trim and patterns signifying their positions and jobs.
“I am looking forward to tonight’s service, Your Reverence,” Nightmare Moon smiled at the mare with hair of liquid gold.
The High Priestess bowed courteously, as did all her retinue. “I hope you will enjoy it, Your Majesty.” The mare stood again and smiled down at the wide-eyed lavender unicorn clinging close to Nightmare Moon’s silver-shod hoof. “Is this your new student?”
“Yes, this is Twilight Sparkle.” Her student offered an adorable bob of a curtsey. “She was quite reluctant to come at first; she isn’t very religious, I think.” The Empress offered an apologetic look, which Twilight mirrored with a blush. “But she is open to possibilities. I hope she will learn something of value from this service.”
The High Priestess smiled politely. “Then I will ask the Ascended to touch her with their inspiration. Provided her mind is open, of course.”
“Of course, Reverence. Shall we?”
The pegasus mare nodded and led the way through the massive doors of the Chantry. The Queen of the Night walked forward with the careful, graceful strides and practised composure of a royal appearing in public. Every motion was calculated to exude calm, regal authority. Twilight trotted quietly and timidly next to her, looking painfully aware of the number of eyes on her. The Inquisitor’s gait and posture, on the other hoof, were as bold and carefree as if they walked alone in the halls of the palace. He seemed completely indifferent to the scrutiny that followed the trio, and evincing no interest in the aristocratic art of Being Seen. Nightmare Moon watched the ashen stallion from the corner of her eye as he gazed absently ahead, most likely bored out of his mind.
Realising she was staring at her Prime Minister, Nightmare Moon pulled her eyes away from him and let them wander the interior of the Chantry instead. It was massive; so vast that it could likely swallow up a certain gargantuan serpent with plenty of room to spare. Pillars, thick and grooved with spiralling lines, stretched skyward to support the domed ceiling. The walls and ceiling of the building were covered in geometric patterns wherever they weren't carved to depict mythical heroes and historical figures long since passed on to the Eternal Herd. The stained glass windows boasted epic scenes; the Enlightenment and evolution of the first alicorns, the birth of the first generation of alicorn foals, and the ultimate Ascension of all but… well. The windows depicted all but one. Nightmare Moon’s gaze flicked quickly to the next tall, narrow window, where a myriad of creatures – ponies, dragons, griffons, bovines, deer and canines alike – held at bay a vast, ruby-eyed silhouette crowned with broad pegasus wings and a horn as long and sharp as a lance.
Just beyond the doors, a large, elegantly simple fountain bubbled water into a deep basin, which funnelled it into several low, wide fonts. Nightmare Moon stepped up to the largest and picked up one of the washcloths stacked in a nearby basket to begin her ablutions. She worked slowly for Twilight’s benefit, the little foal imitating her ritual cleansing.
She dipped the cloth into the water and ran the cloth down her forehead and muzzle, then stooped to wipe each of her hooves. Beside her, Twilight squeezed her eyes shut and vigorously scrubbed her face, but looked up quickly as if afraid she would miss something. The Empress flashed a smile to the filly as she wet the cloth a second time, using it to moisten the top of her head, then her ears and finally the nape of her neck. She deposited the cloth in an empty tub as she stepped back, making way for others while she waited for the clergy to finish their purification. The Inquisitor already stood aside, long since finished with his own rituals.
The Empress led her group to the front of the Chantry, pausing just short of the dais that was the domain of the clergy. Above them, the main dome bulged out into an apse cupping a huge statue of an alicorn. The marble giant shone white, a fatherly stallion with a short beard and a stern gaze offset by his gentle smile. His wings stretched out to either side, nearly touching the edges of the vault, and his gilded mane and tail, though cut short, were carved to suggest the shimmering, ethereal quality of a fully-powered alicorn's hair. One hoof was raised to rest on a massive stone tome.
Nightmare Moon bowed her head before the statue while the clergy, stepping up onto the platform, prostrated themselves under its paternal stare. The Empress took her place on the lone extra-large prayer mat, lying down with her legs folded underneath her. Twilight sat to her right, shifting awkwardly in her dress again. The Inquisitor hesitated for a moment to whisper something to Hierophant North Star before they parted ways and he eased down on the Empress’s other side.
Starting from the back, the Chantry began to fill with masses of ponykind. Hundreds, then thousands of congregants seated themselves on prayer mats as neatly-folded washcloths dwindled and used ones heaped up by the fountain. At last, a low, bell-like tone reverberated in the air, the Chantry’s ancient spells alerting the clergy that the service was full. Two acolytes set their hooves against the huge doors and slowly swung them closed.
Nightmare Moon and her small entourage sat at the front of the Chantry, where the mats were reserved by custom for Very Important Ponies – political leaders, aristocrats, and wealthy and influential ponies of every stripe. None, however, wore their usual ostentatious outfits or gaudy jewellery. Here, beneath the stone gaze of All-Wise Arche, all the affectations of the secular world were as meaningful as the glitter of a particularly shiny grain of sand on the beach.
Soon, the sound of shuffling ponies ceased and silence filled the hall. All attention fell on the apse, where the clergy had gathered around the altar, facing the congregation. Smiling, the High Priestess stepped forward.
“Welcome all, to this Lastnight service. Please rise,” she said, her voice echoing through the halls with magical amplification. Everypony stood up. “May the light of the stars be ever with you.”
“To guide us on our path,” the gathered ponies chorused. Twilight’s response was slightly behind the rest.
“May you find your way to inner peace.”
“And reach the heavens and beyond.”
The High Priestess picked up her hymn book and turned the page, prompting the congregation to do the same with the book that accompanied each mat. Nightmare Moon flipped open the book and held it open on one hoof as North Star began to sing.
Unaccompanied, voices rose to join the Hierophant’s. Soft and shaky at first, ponies soon fell into rhythm and their song grew more confident and cohesive. By the first chorus, there were no longer many voices. Instead, there was only a single, powerful voice. It was deep and high, nasal and brassy and melodic all at once. It sang of peace and cooperation, and of love and passion in all things. Together, the congregation made the music of faith, and for a few minutes, they were as one.
As the introductory hymn ended, the voice of All gradually crumbled back into individual sounds, and those sounds died away into echoes under the high dome. The High Priestess lifted a hoof, gently motioning for the congregation to lie back down. Silence reigned for a moment, until the stallion in the brown-trimmed robe stepped to the front of the dais, a book resting on his back. The other white-draped ponies retreated to prayer mats of their own.
The cerulean stallion reverently placed the book on the lectern, opened it to a bookmarked page, then closed his eyes, his face full of sombre passion. He breathed deeply several times, then started chanting. It was slow and deep, a throaty sound that was almost a hum; soft, but pervasive. The slow tones filled the room and poured into Nightmare Moon’s ears, as if poetry had been melted down until it flowed like a liquid. The haunting, beautiful tones and the stallion’s deep voice resonated throughout the atrium. The Empress glanced to Twilight, who listened with a rapt expression to the soft, impassioned chant.
The spellbinding recitation of the words written by the progenitor of the alicorns, Arche, was not performed Equine. Instead, the Chanter spoke an ancient clerical language developed by the Way long, long ago – even before Nightmare Moon was born. It had remained largely unchanged in all that time, though the Empress could detect the influence of a particularly old dialect of the poetic Hisani language in the pronunciation. The rich tones of the chant told of what enlightenment entailed, and how Arche – He Who Led the Way – gathered knowledge and power from all corners of the world to evolve himself from earth pony to alicorn, finding enlightenment soon after.
While most could not understand the words, their meaning was not important. The focus was on the song itself; the lilting of the voice and the emotion behind the Chant. The words might as well have been gibberish, as long as it helped to calm the soul and clear the mind. Nightmare Moon closed her eyes and let the Chant rock her like the gentle bobbing of a boat at sea.
The Chant came to an end all too soon. As the echoes of the stallion’s resonant words faded, the clergy stood once more and drew together to begin another hymn. The Empress felt a smile tug at her lips. The song was one of her favourites; a paean to the beauty of the night sky and the stars – the last physical remnants of Ascended alicorns. It expressed the hope that the singer might one night follow in Arche’s hoofprints, finding enlightenment and ultimately Ascending to light a star of their own.
As the music died down, High Praise returned to the front of the platform and gazed out at the uncountable throng that had gathered in the temple. The High Priestess scanned the crowd for a few moments, locking eyes for an instant with Nightmare Moon herself. I wonder which tale she will recount tonight, the Empress thought. She had heard them all innumerable times, of course, but the alicorn loved to hear them retold all the same. Each one could be turned and examined to contemplate any of a thousand different facets. The High Priestess focussed her gaze above the heads of the audience with a smile, then began the Inspiration.
“Long ago,” she began, her voice hushed yet ringing in the silence like a triumphant shout, “the great Arche was teaching his disciples by the shore of a lake. Eusebeia said to him, ‘I am a powerful unicorn, skilled in many types of magic, and yet I am bound to the earth. The pegasi live in their cloud cities high above us, weaving rain and forging lightning. You say that our peoples should work together as one, but how could ponies so different from one another ever cooperate?’
“Arche pointed to the lake and told them a story. ‘A heron was attempting to catch fish in a lake much like this one. However, the fish were too crafty, and they knew not to go near the heron and hid deep under the water. The heron soon grew hungry and unhappy. His weeping was heard by a much larger fish, who asked him what was wrong. When he explained his problem, the large fish confessed that he, too, could not catch the smaller fish to eat; they were quicker than he, and fled to the shallows where he could not go. So they came to an agreement to work together and set about planning how to catch the fish.
“The large fish chased the others from the deeps into the shallows, where the heron could pluck them out with his beak. Together, they caught a great haul, and together they feasted; coming to an arrangement that evening, they agreed to help one another whenever either was hungry. If a fish and a heron can work together, how much more should two ponies?’” The High Priestess smiled and continued. “Arche told his disciples that nature can yield examples of cooperation and harmony between many different animals; this is how all creatures should treat one another. All people, individuals and groups alike, can find balance and harmony no matter how different they seem. Cooperation and friendship can overcome any obstacle.”
The High Priestess paused for effect, letting the story sink in. In the pause, Nightmare Moon noticed a movement in the corner of her eye. Twilight’s head began drooping downwards. Nightmare Moon nudged the filly awake with her wing, shooting her a pointed frown. Twilight flinched at the touch, a shamed blush springing up on her face as she met the Empress’s stern eyes. Nightmare Moon turned back to the golden-maned orator. The Inspiration continued on the themes of love and friendship, with the alicorn only slightly distracted by keeping an eye on Twilight. Finally, the High Priestess gestured for the assembly to rise and began one final song. Like the sermon, the song was about harmony and mutual good will, an oddly joyful tune compared to the solemnity of the ceremony.
High Praise made one final address as the rest of the clergy retreated to their own mats. “As music evokes our outer emotions, let Silence and meditation bring forth our inner selves. Now is the time to pray, to think and to meditate.” Then she too lay down.
An intense stillness filled the Chantry. Nightmare Moon settled back down on her mat like those around her, but Twilight was fidgeting and shuffling to her right, peaking at the ponies around her and trying to imitate their postures. The Empress craned her head down to the unicorn.
“What is the matter, Twilight?” she whispered.
“I don’t know… how do I meditate?” the lavender foal asked.
Nightmare Moon briefly surveyed the sea of ponykind around them, then smiled softly. “Just relax, clear your mind and focus on your breathing. Allow your spirit and mind to loosen and flow freely. Now, we must be quiet.”
Twilight nodded and finally relaxed into a comfortable posture, closing her eyes and breathing deeply in and out. Nightmare Moon, content that her student was using the Silence properly, turned her attention to her own devices.
At first, the alicorn tried to meditate. She looked inwardly, into her mind. She pictured it as a door, containing all her doubts, fears and worries. Nightmare Moon tentatively opened the door of her inner thoughts, but dared only the quickest of peeks. Closing it all off again, she pushed the feelings to the back of her mind, sighed, and started over relaxing herself.
Her meditations only went on for a short while until before she gave up on them, frustrated with her own inability to loosen up. Suppressing a loud another sigh, Nightmare switched to her preferred alternative to alleviate her worries. Bowing her head, she instead focussed on picturing the stars. She imagined she could reach out and touch them; linking them, reach through them, to commune with the beings that created them. Nightmare Moon slowly brought her fears to mind, and voiced them in prayer one by one.
Ancestors, I pray that you may help me stay on the right path as I lead my little ponies. I hope that I can have the strength to make the right decisions… and that I have made the right decisions. The Empress found her thoughts drifting to the filly that lay quietly next to her. I hope I can teach Twilight Sparkle well, and make her the best she can be. Grant guidance to me and to her as she learns and grows. There was a lull in her prayer, and she found herself unwilling to say any more, even in the privacy of her own mind. The Empress shied away from the door in the back of her mind, pushed it away from even her prayers. Yet there was still one more thing she had to say, one last request for her Ancestors which she never neglected. And please tell Winter Storm I still love him, whichever heaven he may inhabit...
She opened her eyes again, her attempt at meditation as brief as usual, and simply watched the other ponies around her. Up on the dais, the Hierophant fairly trembled with zeal, her lips moving in silent prayer. To Nightmare’s left, the Inquisitor lay on his mat, spotlighted by a beam of moonlight shining through one of the windows. A glint of the moonbeam caught her attention – the Inquisitor’s eye, barely cracked open, watching Hierophant North Star in her fervent meditations. She flicked her gaze to Twilight, who was squirming again under the heavy stillness of such a large congregation.
Just then, the High Priestess’s voice cut through the silence, a mere murmur filling the Chantry with echoes. “The doors will now open, but you are welcome to stay as long as you wish. Wherever your path leads, may you walk the Way.”
Twilight jolted, immediately beginning to rise to her hooves, but stopped half-way and looked to Nightmare Moon for approval. Smiling reassuringly, the Empress nodded and also stood up. The Inquisitor was already on his hooves, watching the exchange with that maddening smirk of his. She paused to stretch her neck, relishing the feeling of limbering up even a little after so long lying down. The alicorn noticed that a great many ponies were already pouring out. Once upon a time, they’d have waited for her to leave first. But everypony was so busy these nights, begrudging even the hour or so spent in the service. She sometimes wondered why they bothered to attend at all, if they weren't truly prepared to strive for enlightenment in the first place.
And I’m one to talk, she added bitterly to herself.
As she turned to the exit, out of the corner of her eye Nightmare Moon spotted North Star rise from her own mat and make her way towards her. Ancestors above, can I not have even a single minute of peace? The Empress stifled a groan, praying the fuschia unicorn was just there for the Inquisitor. Maybe if I walk fast enough I can get out before she catches up. Or I can teleport Twilight and I out of here, or maybe–
“Your Holiness, may I have a word?”
Pushing away the sudden urge to see if the Royal Canterlot Voice could physically hurl a pony against the wall if she screamed loud enough, Nightmare turned and gave the Hierophant a smile as sincere as the Inquisitor’s reasons for coming to the Chantry. The unicorn mare either accepted the gesture at face value, or her cutie mark should have been a set of comedy and tragedy masks. She bowed deeply and returned a smile of frankly sickening adoration.
“What can I do for you?” the Empress prompted, her smile beginning to flake at the edges.
“I have not had much time to talk with you,” the Hierophant said, straightening up again. “Might I beg a few moments of your time in private, one on one? Sometime soon?”
“Ooh, I don’t know, Hierophant.” Her eyes flicked over to the Inquisitor, who was watching them with an amused smirk on his face. Take her off my hooves, Inquisitor! I beg you! “I will have to check my schedule, and I’m afraid I do not have it with me.”
“I see… may I ask you something else?” she looked up at the Empress with a hopeful smile.
If it were anypony else, Nightmare Moon would have likely snapped at her and sent her away immediately. But not only was North Star a member of her closest circle, she also had a certain… fragility where Nightmare Moon was concerned. North Star could be as devious and cutthroat as any member of her privy council – one had to be, in order to get that close to the Empress of Equestria – but the fuchsia mare would take deeply to heart any hint of scolding or flash of temper from her, and likely brood over her supposed transgression for nights afterward. North Star literally worshipped Nightmare Moon, which was both flattering and intensely annoying for the alicorn.
She nodded, pressing her lips together tightly. “Be brief.”
“Would it be at all possible for me to oversee Twilight Sparkle’s spiritual education?” North Star asked. “Of course you know the depth of insight that I can offer her, and I am certain you would appreciate having more spare time.”
Ah, so that’s her angle. I don’t think I’ll let you brainwash my student, thank you very much. “I am afraid not, Hierophant. I am quite satisfied that Twilight will be receiving a superior education, and while I do appreciate your offer, I do not desire any help.”
The cult leader gave a quick but low bow. “Of course, Your Holiness. If I may ask, will you be interested in attending a service of the Cult Imperia as the guest of honour? I am sure it would be a very positive experience for Twilight Sparkle, if you decide to bring her along too.”
“I’ll think about it. Good night, Hierophant,” Nightmare Moon gave a curt, dismissive nod and turned back to the exit.
“Oh, one more thing, Your Holiness!”
The alicorn gave an inaudible hiss as she wheeled around. Cheimon take her! What does she want now? “Yes?” She forced a smile.
North Star’s horn flashed and a satchel appeared, hovering next to her. From the bag she pulled a thick tome, the pages pristine though the cover was cracked with age. Next to the alicorn, Twilight perked up at the sight of the volume.
“I have a gift here for Twilight Sparkle,” she levitated the tome to the filly. “A first-edition copy of ‘The Magic of the Immortals’ by Starswirl the Bearded.”
“For… me?” Gasping, the little unicorn accepted the gift with a smile so wide it seemed to truly stretch from ear to ear. Nightmare Moon couldn’t help but genuinely smile at her student’s joy. The Empress shifted her gaze to the lavender-maned priestess, who was peering up at the alicorn with a hopeful grin fixed across her face.
“Thank you, North Star, that is very thoughtful of you.” There was a moment’s pause, and Nightmare Moon glanced down at the filly. She had already opened the book and begun reading. Nightmare cleared her throat and gave the filly an arch look. “What do we say to Miss Star, Twilight?”
Her student snapped out of her trance with a blush and a stammer. “Oh! I, um… thank you, Miss Star.”
“It is the least I can do for you, Twilight Sparkle,” North Star replied, before turning back to her Empress. “If there is anything else I can give you, Your Holiness, or anything I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
It was then that the Inquisitor finally chose to insert himself into the conversation. He sidled up next to North Star, who gave him a strange little half-smile, her eyes sparking with something between anger and anticipation. The Hierophant had strange reactions to some ponies, especially the Inquisitor. Nightmare Moon could usually read her easily; for instance, Marshal Silverstar provoked in the Hierophant a simple, barely-contained loathing with his brutally secular, down-to-earth ways. But with the Inquisitor, North Star was all over the place, her face contorting from polite propriety to irritation to playful amusement as they talked.
“I think, Hierophant,” the grey stallion put in, “That Her Majesty will probably want to leave now. Anyway, your discussion is disturbing Those Who Stayed.” He gestured to the silent, deeply concentrating worshippers still lying on their prayer mats, the capital letters clearly audible in his tone.
North Star shot him a look of shocked outrage, quickly quashed as she bowed once more to the alicorn. “Of course! I am terribly sorry to detain you for so long, Your Holiness,” she said, without a trace of irony that the Empress could detect.
Nightmare Moon gave a dismissive wave of her hoof. “Think nothing of it. Thank you again for your gift. And your… kind offer.”
North Star turned to the Inquisitor, who looked at her with a thin, bland smile. “Inquisitor, I would like a word with you outside.”
The stallion let a resigned gust of air out from his nostrils. “If we must, Hierophant.” He gave a sweeping motion to the exit with a leg. “Shall we?”
The two walked off, the unicorn mare bobbing her head one last time to the Empress, leaving Nightmare Moon alone with Twilight in the middle of the Chantry. She sighed, relieved, and turned to the little filly beside her. Twilight had once again buried her nose in Starswirl’s book. The black alicorn smiled and lowered her head to Twilight’s level.
“Twilight?” she whispered. The filly jolted out of her book.
“Yes, Your Majesty?” she gazed up into the draconic eyes of the Empress.
“How would you like to get some ice cream?”
Twilight’s face lit up and she let out a giddy squeal. She immediately slapped a hoof over her mouth, but the high-pitched noise of delight still echoed through the building for several seconds. The filly looked up at Nightmare Moon with a furious blush and nodded.
Nightmare Moon did her best not to laugh.
The Inquisitor didn’t really know where North Star was taking him. At first he thought she was leading him back to the palace, walking past the great, lavish houses of the Canterlot bourgeoisie. But then the Hierophant veered left onto a side street and weaved off through the lanes and back streets of Canterlot.
It was only a few blocks later, however, that North Star halted and turned to him with an impish grin. The Inquisitor arched a cynical eyebrow. “Really, Hierophant? A park?”
In truth, it was more garden than park. The wide flower beds and topiary bushes were carefully sculpted and groomed, managed by a team of public servants funded by the influential ponies of Canterlot. Unlike the more public parks near the Academy, this was a garden reserved for the elite of Canterlot. While not quite as breathtakingly beautiful as the royal gardens of the Imperial Palace, it was definitely quite a step up from the parks frequented by dog-walkers and Frisbee-playing foals.
“Why not? It is certainly better than a meeting in some stuffy old room… unless it’s a cosy drawing room by the fire. Actually, that does sound quite nice. Delightfully informal, wouldn’t you say?” she mused absent-mindedly.
The Inquisitor sighed and held his tongue, wondering whether he could teleport back to the palace to escape her. No, she’d just hunt me down again later. I might as well get this over with while I’m here. They continued walking, his eyes fixed straight ahead whilst North Star’s gaze darted from flowers to moon to statuary with apparently honest appreciation. It soon became apparent that she was content to simply waste his time. He was a busy pony, and he had paperwork to file. But even more than having his time wasted, he hated to let himself be goaded. Eventually, though, the mare’s silence and the passage of time pressed him into speaking first.
“Hierophant.” He stopped suddenly and narrowed his eyes at the mare. She turned to face him with a lazy, serene expression. “Are we here for a meeting, or are you content merely to keep me from finishing my work tonight?”
“Oh, Inquisitor!” She smiled pleasantly, though her voice was thick with feigned disappointment. “And here I thought we were having fun walking in this quiet park…” Her tone shifted to a romantic sing-song, though the Inquisitor thought he detected an edge of mockery. “Just you and I and the birds…”
The grey stallion managed a smirk as he glanced toward a clock tower in the distance. “And here I thought you had something important to discuss.” She muttered something under her breath. “What was that?” The Inquisitor snapped out as smoothly as he could.
“Oh, nothing, nothing. As a matter of fact, I did. We haven’t had a proper conversation since Miss Twilight Sparkle arrived.”
“Yes, well, it seems you have me at your disposal. So what is it that weighs so heavily on your mind?”
The mare inched closer to him, tilting her head and narrowing her eyes. “Well, if we must get right to business, I was wondering why your rough-shod thugs have seen fit to occupy one of the Cult’s monasteries in the northern territories.”
“That was a necessary action, I’m afraid,” he shrugged, holding in his victorious grin. I have you now. “It is crucial to the safety of the nation that the griffon border is secured in its entirety.”
The Hierophant gave the Inquisitor a predatory smile. “This doesn’t have anything to do with your failure at the diplomatic conference with Rodoria and its vassals, hmmm?”
At least I can rely upon you to attack a weak point without deliberation. “It is possible,” he said, making his voice as stiff as his smile.
“And what about this talk of a bill that has been floating around the palace?”
“That?” the Inquisitor’s grin became livelier. “Oh, it’s just talk, Lady North Star. I wouldn’t put much stake in it if I were you.”
The mare sidled closer to him, her voice dropping to a husky pout. “Surely you wouldn’t support such a bill? Do you realise how much power it would give Marshall Silverstar?” A twitch of a sneer flashed briefly across her face, there and gone as quickly as a flash of lightning.
The Inquisitor suppressed a snort of laughter. So long as she kept her mind on Silverstar, she was as predictable as the weather. “As a matter of fact, Hierophant, such a bill would be in all of our interests. The security of the nation is paramount. Which is why I authorised the… repossession of a former Cult Imperia building.”
“You have no right to turn buildings dedicated to peace and enlightenment into fortresses!” North Star scowled. “And you cannot allow this bill to pass. Silverstar will benefit greatly from it, and even you know how much he hates any part of the government that isn’t beholden to his precious democratic system. Need I remind you that that accounts for over three quarters of the local governments of Equestria?”
“Oh, come now, Miss Star.” The Inquisitor gave a boyish grin, wondering if she needed another nudge. “You’re beginning to sound paranoid. Are you afraid Silverstar will gain so much from this bill that he’ll launch a revolution or something?”
Her cry was far too loud, even she knew that. The dark eyed unicorn chuckled as the priestess blushed, conscious of the possibility of her outburst being overheard by passers-by. She cast a quick spell, muting their words to those more than a few feet away. Nevertheless, the Inquisitor drew in closer to her, his voice a near-whisper.
“Do you even know what this proposed bill entails?” he asked.
The mare leaned in, a calm, coy look settling on her face. “Only snippets,” she murmured in a conspiratorial tone. “But I’m sure that you will be so very generous as to tell me what you know. You know me, Inquisitor – I can keep a secret.”
The black-garbed stallion drew back to keep the mare at arm’s length. “Oh, I’m sure you can, Hierophant,” he chuckled. “The question is whether I would have anything to gain from sharing with you the details of this proposal.”
She feigned a look of hurt. “Oh, Inquisitor! And here I thought our relationship had surpassed such venality.”
“You thought wrong,” he deadpanned, flashing a wry smirk.
The mare looked down thoughtfully, apparently mulling over what she could give him in exchange. Come on, North Star. You know what’s in front of me. Blueblood’s going to be enough of a problem without you supporting him. Not to mention, it was a rare opportunity for her to stand as his ally for once, though Ancestors alone knew why she was so eager for that.
“Very well, Inquisitor,” North Star said as she lifted her eyes back to him. “I think we can come to an arrangement.”
“And?” the ashen unicorn prompted.
“And I believe that with your help, we can develop a plan for the defence of Equestria that doesn’t hand Silverstar the keys to the kingdom.” She closed the distance between them again, her eyes alight. “I think it’s time we worked together, Inquisitor. And not just with respect to Silverstar’s little notion. Blueblood has been growing rather comfortable with his position, don’t you think? He’s sunk his claws into so much of the country. It’s time we rebalance things.”
The Inquisitor nodded, his smile growing a little more sincere. He had let Blueblood become far too powerful over the years, and that definitely needed fixing. The noblepony had unprecedented sway over the gentry and, more importantly, the governing lords of the provinces that still bowed to feudal aristocracy. He could command a significant portion of the Empire through charisma and wealth alone, and that was definitely something to be corrected.
“I agree, Lady North Star,” the stallion replied after pausing as if to think. “Perhaps we can give one another some leeway? If you can bring yourself to support a bill that benefits Silverstar, I will help you keep him aimed at Blueblood’s heart.”
Again she pondered. “I suppose… if you will also order your minions to leave my institutions alone.”
“But of course! I can’t have you deciding to stab me in the back on this, now can I?” he chuckled.
“Well, the old proverb is ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’,” the Hierophant said.
I think I prefer, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my enemy’s enemy; nothing more and nothing less.’ The Inquisitor nodded as if in agreement. “So long as it’s mutually beneficial, of course.”
“Oh, yes, Inquisitor. I know this is only temporary.” she flashed him a toothy smirk. “But I enjoy a challenge. Perhaps you’ll soon find that you would prefer to keep me by your side after all.”
“Shall we head on over to your office to discuss the bill, then?” the Inquisitor asked, nodding towards the park’s exit. “I’m none too comfortable discussing such sensitive information out here.”
North Star nodded. “But of course. Lead the way.”
As the Hierophant walked next to him, a wicked grin spread across the Inquisitor’s face. I have my bishop now, Duke Blueblood, he thought. When I get my rook, you’ll see just how formidable my arsenal is. I’m sure your pieces won’t measure up, but I hope they do. North Star isn’t the only one who enjoys a challenge. Soon it’ll be your move, Blueblood, and it better be a good one.
Ice cream was a wondrous creation, Twilight decided. This particular parlour boasted of products made with genuine, fresh ingredients: prime Cervidian vanilla, rich Ahuizotlan cocoa, and cream straight from the master dairy-makers in the highlands of Bovin. The sign on the wall said so. Twilight briefly glanced out the windows of the shop. A small crowd had gathered, gawkers and journalists alike, to see the Empress and her student eating ice cream. It was growing by the second. ‘Only’ a pair of Honour Guards stood at the doors, holding back the onlookers. Behind the crowd, Twilight could see several ponies peeking out of the windows of their upper-class apartment homes to see what all the fuss was about.
Whenever the Empress went out in public, she attracted a significant gathering. Most of them respectfully (and fearfully) kept their distance, but the crowd here pressed eagerly against the windows. Nightmare Moon stood at the counter, daintily sampling some of their best and most unique flavours. While it was obviously unusual for royalty to patronise an establishment like this, Twilight could tell that much of the gathered ponies’ attention was on her. She knew that word of her new position had spread quickly, but this was really the first time she had left the palace environs in the alicorn’s company. Everypony was staring. Not in a hostile way, just… watching her. She hoped she wouldn’t drop her ice cream.
The little purple unicorn’s eyes had nearly popped out when she saw the prices in the shop. They were in one of the wealthiest parts of town, sure, and it was decorated more like a fancy restaurant than an ice cream parlour, but she had never expected to see an ice cream cone that cost more than a brand-new hardcover book! She wasn’t even sure what a truffle was.
Of course, it’s all free, Twilight thought, a delighted twinkle in her eyes. Nopony would refuse the desires of the Empress. Twilight levitated an ice cream-filled spoon carefully to her mouth, all too wary of her delicate pastel-coloured dress. Nightmare Moon had flatly refused to let her read her new book while she was eating, no matter how careful she promised to be.
The Empress soon walked over to the table where Twilight was eating and sat down next to her, carrying her own bowl filled with the delicious dairy dessert.
“Did you enjoy the service?” Nightmare Moon asked.
“Um…” Twilight looked down at her bowl. “It was a little… boring, at times.”
Taking a peek up at her mentor, she took in the alicorn’s thoughtful expression. “But not all of it,” she added hurriedly. “I liked the… the story in the middle.”
“You liked tonight’s Inspiration?” she smiled wryly. “Is that why you started nodding off?”
Twilight bit her lip. “I… I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I won’t do it again!”
A faintly pained look touched the alicorn’s eyes and she raised a hoof to silence the filly. “It’s all right, Twilight, I’m not going to punish you just for that. This is for your benefit, not mine.”
“Oh… I’m sorry, Empress,” the filly murmured, her eyes downcast. She battled a blush from colouring her face. Stupid! Nightmare Moon isn’t like that. I shouldn’t believe all those horrid rumours about her.
The two sat in silence for a while after that. Nightmare Moon was doing her best to look friendly and approachable, and Twilight was doing her best to look unembarrassed. The filly’s eyes flicked back outside. There were many curious eyes looking at her through the parlour’s windows, more than she was used to. She had noticed the eyes on her since they stepped off the chariot at the Chantry, but most ponies there were too more distracted with other things to pay attention to her. Here, the expanding throng of ponies all had nothing better to do on a lazy Lastnight other than to gape at the latest piece of royalty-related gossip. Twilight did her best to ignore them, but she could feel their penetrating, insatiably curious stares.
“Twilight, is something wrong?” the Empress asked.
The filly shrugged. “Uh, no. I mean, yes – well, it’s nothing really. It’s just… everypony’s looking at us.”
The Empress turned to look at the crowd outside, causing quite a few of them to jolt and quickly start inspecting the sidewalk, the awning, or the guards at the door. “I suppose it must be a bit intimidating for you. I’m sorry, Twilight, I have been so used to having eyes on me constantly in public that I forgot you might not be comfortable with it.” Nightmare’s horn flashed briefly and a couple of opaque sheets of ethereal matter appeared over the windows, blotting the outside from view. “Better?” the mare asked.
Twilight nodded distractedly. She was fascinated, but not by the spell. At least, not as much as she was by Nightmare Moon herself. Had Twilight cast a spell like that, not only would it strain her magical talent, she would have to keep her full attention on maintaining it. But the alicorn betrayed no sign of exertion, or of even paying attention to the spell. Nothing ever seemed to strain her mentor, mentally or physically.
“How come you don’t have to focus on a spell like that?” she asked, causing the alicorn to pause with her spoon halfway to her mouth. “I’d never know you were maintaining it if I hadn’t seen you cast it!”
“It’s a technique called ‘locking’,” Nightmare Moon said with a smile. “With practice, exceptionally powerful magicians can use it to fix a spell in place without the need to focus on it.” She paused to finish her bite of ice cream, and then winked. “But I do not think you’ll be trying that for some time yet.
“Wow,” the filly murmured. “You made it look so easy.”
“Well, I am an alicorn, after all,” the Empress chuckled.
There wasn’t much Twilight could say to that, so she filled her mouth with her spoon instead. Of course Nightmare Moon, of all ponies, would barely need a fraction of her power for… well, any spell the filly could imagine! Still, this ‘locking’ sounded like a handy trick to learn. Her books back at the orphanage hadn’t even mentioned it.
The purple unicorn’s spoon fell still as she sat, peering unseeingly into her bowl. “Your Majesty?” she said at last.
“Yes, Twilight?” Nightmare Moon spooned another lump of ice cream into her mouth.
"Would it be all right if we stop by the foster home on the way back? I haven’t really written to Miss Loch, and I’d like to say hello.”
The alicorn frowned faintly. “I must return to the palace soon. I have a meeting with an ambassador from Iburria. However,” she said quickly as Twilight’s expression began to fall, “I see no reason you can’t visit on your own.”
Twilight beamed and finished her ice cream as quickly as possible, pausing only to clutch her head in pain. The ponies behind the counter bowed as the Empress and her student rose to leave, and the opaque sheets of magic vanished as Nightmare Moon stepped through the door to the street. Several camera flashes came from the crowd, but there were no questions or autograph requests. Nopony would dare to impede the Empress of Equestria. Instead, the crowd parted quickly and politely for their monarch.
Nightmare Moon walked Twilight to the chariot and gestured for her to get in. The filly hopped up and made room, but blinked quizzically as her mentor failed to follow. “Aren’t you coming, Your Majesty?”
“No, actually. The chariot will take you straight to the orphanage. I can make my own way back to the palace,” Nightmare said.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” The little unicorn bowed to Nightmare Moon.
“Remember, Twilight, if there is any trouble, the Honour Guards will protect you.”
The filly nodded, though she could hardly imagine needing it. Trouble? How in the world could there be any trouble in my own foster home? What could possibly be so bad I would need an Honour Guard to protect me? “Thank you, Your Majesty,” she said again.
Nightmare Moon stepped away from the chariot, and her mane and tail wrapped around her in a whirling column of purple fog. The onlookers barely had time to gasp before the whirlwind collapsed in on itself, and in a burst of magical light, the alicorn ruler vanished back to the castle. As the shock passed, the crowd of nosey ponies began to chatter among themselves, no longer restrained by the presence of Nightmare Moon. Twilight hurriedly asked her chaperones to take her to the orphanage, feeling exceptionally small without the Empress to fill up the enormous carriage.
With that, she was off again down the streets of the capital. The city was so vibrant; each building and pony was unique, but from the sprawling estates near the palace down to the close, plain stone buildings she had called home for most of her life, all shared a sense of pride and superiority. Whether a Canterlot pony wore a monocle and cravat or a hardhat and an orange safety vest, all could survey the land of Equestria spread out beneath them from the city’s lofty perch.
The journey took her to the familiar road and field that had once represented the edge of The Rest of the World, and soon she could see the foster home standing tall behind its tree-lined walls. The main building still retained a sense of its origin as a mansion owned by an influential family; it wasn't hard to see, now, the similarities between the orphanage and the homes of the wealthy in more upscale neighbourhoods.
As the chariot made its way along the orphanage’s private road, a group of foals stopped playing to stare at the royal vehicle, the bat-winged Honour Guards, and Twilight. The chariot came to a halt and the guards unhitched themselves from it, then moved to watch over the filly as she hopped onto the ground.
“Thank you, sirs,” she said. The guards’ only reply was a bow shallow enough to be considered a long nod. One posted himself resolutely by the chariot while the other silently fell in on the unicorn’s steps.
Twilight trotted past the foals, paying no heed to their stares. The unicorn felt the giddy, tingling sensation of nostalgic excitement as she opened the front door. Scribbling away at the reception desk was a pegasus mare. She glanced at Twilight, then back down to her papers. Then back up again with wide eyes as she registered the grey, purple-armoured pegasus next standing next to the beaming filly. The Honour Guard returned the stare with his own stony, grim gaze.
“Hello, Miss Harp! I’m here for a visit!” Twilight chirped, drawing the surprised mare’s attention away from the guard.
“Oh… well, welcome back, Twilight…” Miss Harp trailed off, throwing another brief, nervous glance at the batlike pony. “I don’t know where Miss Loch is at the moment, but, uh, I’m sure you’ll be able to look for her if you find her – I mean, find her if you look for her!”
“Thank you!” the filly said, and pranced off down the hallway of the orphanage.
This place seems so much smaller than I thought it was. She hadn’t been gone for that long, she thought, but already life at the Imperial Palace was having an effect on her perceptions. She was so used to wandering the massive, labyrinthine corridors of the palace that navigating the foster home seemed such a trivial task in comparison.
Twilight’s first stop was Loch Mare’s office. She tapped on the door and was promptly rewarded with a kindly, “Come in!”
The familiar chocolate-coloured unicorn sat at her desk, solemnly scribbling away. The papers were likely adoption documents, or reports on the progress of the residents. Twilight had given up hope long ago that anypony would ever adopt her. Being one of the longest residents, she had seen countless other foals leave for new families and new lives. All the while, she waited for the night when Miss Loch would come to her with the news that a family decided to adopt her. But whenever prospective parents visited the orphanage, looking to adopt, they never seemed interested in her, or those who did seemed to lose their interest after meeting the other foals. But I have a new life at the Palace now. And that’s… sort of like being adopted, right? At least, someone wanted her for her talent, and that was good enough.
“Hello, Miss Loch!” she said. “The Empress let me come and visit.”
“Twilight!” The matron shot to her hooves, her expression brightening, and rounded the desk to envelop her in a warm embrace. “It’s good to see you! I missed you.”
“I missed you too,” Twilight said.
The white-haired mare stepped away from Twilight, looking her over as if to see how she’d grown in only a few weeks. “So, what have you been doing since I last saw you? Has the Empress been kind to you?”
Taking a great breath of air, the little unicorn chattered out a rambling account of everything that had happened to her in the month or so she had been living at the palace. She told of the many rooms, the many ponies and the many wonders she grew accustomed to under Nightmare Moon’s guardianship. When asked about her visit from Orion, the filly very carefully stuck to the meticulously false story she and her friend had devised. While she didn’t think Loch Mare would tell the Empress about her breaking into the Hesperidium and fighting with the younger Blueblood, she wasn’t about to take the risk. After she talked about her all her private lessons and the new spells she was able to perform, Twilight began to gush about Nightmare Moon – her kindness, her magnificence, and her stark, exotic beauty – oblivious to the strained look that crept over the mare’s face. She was about to mention how nice the Inquisitor turned out to be when a knock at the door interrupted her.
“Come in!” Loch Mare called.
The door opened and a cream unicorn filly practically tumbled in, blurting out her words before she even had time to register the occupants of the room. “Miss Loch, there’s a royal chariot outside and I just saw a big, scary guard–” The filly stopped and stared, then broke out in an incredibly wide grin. “Twilight!”
“Hi, Moondancer,” Twilight said, giving a small wave.
“Moondancer, what is the problem?” Loch Mare asked.
“Well, I was going to tell you that there’re some government ponies in armour wandering around, but now I know why!”
Miss Loch nodded and smiled. “Moondancer, why don’t you take Twilight to say hello to everypony else? I have some work I need to finish. Does that sound good, Twilight?”
“Yes, Miss Loch!”
The crimson-maned unicorn filly trotted up to Twilight and nudged her. “C’mon, Twilight! The others don’t know you’re here yet, and I know they’d love to hear all about the palace. Let’s go!”
“But…” Twilight threw a quick look to Miss Loch as she was dragged out, but the old mare simply nodded and returned to her desk.
The lavender unicorn soon found herself being led down the corridors of the orphanage by her flame-haired friend. Twilight turned to the Honour Guard – who maintained a steady pursuit but politely kept his distance.
“You can go back to your friend at the chariot,” she called to him. “I’ll be fine!”
The pegasus gave another of those shallow bows and spun around, then was lost to sight as Moondancer rounded a corner.
Soon, they were outside in the field behind the main building. The familiar sounds of running and playing foals assaulted her ears, a sound she realized she hadn’t heard since her move. Not that she missed the din. Some pegasi had brought clouds down low and were playing a minimalist version of stormball – one without a cluster of thunderclouds hanging a few metres above their heads. Others had built forts of sticks and logs under a cluster of trees, while others were playing the time-honoured game of hoofball.
Moondancer brought Twilight over to a chatting pair of fillies. Twilight recognised the yellow and blue foal as Lemon Hearts, and the pink-haired pony to her right was Twinkle. Moondancer and Twinkle would often pretend they were sisters to the newer residents, sharing everything in appearance apart from eye and hair colour. In fact, Twilight had noticed all three of them almost always wore their manes in the same style, and were very much alike. She often found herself wondering if they really were sisters.
“Hey guys, look who’s come to visit us lowly commoners!” Moondancer announced playfully.
“Twilight!” The two unicorn fillies rushed to Twilight and pulled her in for an enthused hug.
“Hi girls,” Twilight said, waving her hoof shyly.
“Hey, Twilight, I gotta ask, what’s with the dress?” Moondancer asked.
“Oh, this?” Twilight looked down at the yellow silk. “The Empress wanted me to wear something formal for Chantry services tonight.”
“You hung out with the Empress?” Lemon Hearts squealed at the thought.
“No! Well, yes, but not exactly…” Twilight sighed. “She just took me with her to the Chantry and then we went out for ice cream.”
Moondancer laughed. “Having ice cream with the Empress? You’ve really gone up in the world!”
Twilight suppressed the urge to roll her eyes. Of all the things she could possibly be impressed by, having ice cream is apparently the most important?
“So what’s it like living at the palace?” Twinkle asked.
“Oh, it’s wonderful! They give you anything you want for dinner, and the rooms are so nice. The library is huge too! And the observatory is amazing! You can see the other planets really well, and–”
“What about the royal family?” Lemon Hearts interjected. “Have you met any Dukes or Duchesses or knights?”
Twilight scrunched her face in thought. “Well… a few, I guess, but I don’t really talk to them. I did meet the Duke of Canterlot, and his son, Prince Blueblood, but–”
Twinkle gasped. “The Prince? What’s he like? Is he chivalrous and dashing? Is he handsome?”
Handsome? “Uh, well…” Twilight decided not to spoil their fantasy image of the Prince by telling them about his less that admirable personality. “I guess he’s handsome…”
“Are you gonna marry him?” Lemon Hearts asked.
"Marry him?" She restrained the urge to retch at the idea. “Why on Earth would I do that?”
Lemon’s eyes went wide with starry romance. “Well, he’s a prince and you’ve been adopted by the Empress, which means you’re basically a princess. Princes and princesses always get married!”
Twilight blanched. “She didn’t adopt me, I’m not a princess, and even if I was, I wouldn’t have to marry him.”
The yellow filly was about to defend her hypothesis further, until Moondancer leapt in to change the subject. “So you’ve been studying magic, huh Twilight? Know any cool spells?”
Twilight smiled in relief and seized the new topic. “Yes, I do! I’ve been studying non-stop ever since I moved to the palace.”
“Can we see one?”
Twilight nodded and stepped back, making room to perform. “This is what I’ve been working on the past few days.” The girls looked on intently, shuffling with anticipation. Twilight scrunched her eyes shut and focussed. Taking a relatively simple spell – a cooling spell – she applied her magic to the air. Unlike other spells, she didn't have to compensate for any changes to a thing or the environment, nor did she have to establish the parameters and rules for the spell. All she had to do was lower the temperature.
A faint haze gathered in front of her, slowly thickening into fog as the temperature fell. Twilight split her focus, sifting the water droplets out of the chilled air as it sunk and forcing them together in the middle while fresh, moist air flowed into the spell’s area. After a minute’s effort, an orb of condensed water floated in front of her. The trick won approving coos from the three unicorns.
She subdivided the ball into several smaller sphere and ran a few increasingly complex formations with them. A cube of eight orbs split into twenty-seven, then shifted to a hollow sphere. The sphere spun out into a flat disc, then stretched up in the middle like a spindle before she collapsed it all back into a single ball again. Moondancer, Lemon Hearts, and Twinkle stomped their hooves in applause.
Grinning with pride, the purple unicorn focused intently on the ball of water, trying to imagine it as lots of smaller balls all stuck together. Carefully at first, she began to mold the floating water. She smoothed it out into a flat oblong, then bit her lip as she spread one end out.
“It’s a fish!” gasped Twinkle, prompting ‘oohs’ from the other fillies. She mashed the water back down again like modelling clay and started a new sculpture, the tip of her tongue sticking out the corner of her mouth. The water stretched out into two thin streams, which twisted around one another in opposite directions: a double helix, spinning slowly in front of her.
The unicorn filly returned it to a ball and focused even harder, her horn shedding sparks as she molded the liquid once more, creating the most complex form yet. A bulb at one end, a tube at the other, four more tubes hanging below it… and a rippling, transparent pony took shape in front of her.
An explosion of cheers startled Twilight so badly that her levitation spell broke entirely, the water splashing into the grass. Her tricks had gathered a small crowd while she was concentrating, colts and fillies pressing close to see her magic. Blushing, the unicorn bowed to her audience as they stomped their delight.
“Do another one!” urged a younger colt. Twilight glanced around at the ring of eager faces nodding in agreement and returned an awkward smile. She glanced around her for something to work with, something nopony would mind if she messed up on. There wasn’t much besides the stormball clouds and the wet grass at her feet.
The filly lowered her horn toward the ground, trying to recall everything she’d ever learned about plant growth. Had she the knowledge, runes and pre-made spell matrices would take away much of the effort of compensating and corresponding the effects of a spell. As it was, the more complex growth spell would demand greater concentration and mental processing than her earlier feat of temperature manipulation and levitation. The magic can provide energy for photosynthesis. Plenty of water in the soil. May need to enhance fluid uptake rate. The audience faded from her mind as she worked through the problem. Gas exchange might be a limiting factor. Light breeze today, that should be enough to prevent oxygen buildup.
Her horn blazing to life, she created a tenuous link with the grass blades and, slowly and steadily, fed her magical energy to the plants. Gently at first, she directed their use of the energy, nudging the plants to grow. The blades began to visibly lengthen. Her confidence strengthening, she sped up her transfer of energy and smiled as the speed of growth accelerated. The patch of grass stretched up toward the moon, topping two feet before it began to yellow from lack of water. Twilight cut the link and opened her eyes, panting faintly from the exertion.
Moondancer touched the grass with one hoof. “That… is so cool!” she laughed.
“Yeah, I thought watching grass grow was supposed to be boring!” Twinkle giggled. “Where’d you learn to do that? The Empress?”
“Sort of,” Twilight said. “The Empress mostly teaches me the underlying principles of magic and encourages me to use that knowledge to discover new ways of applying myself.”
“So she hasn’t actually taught you any spells?” Lemon Hearts raised a brow.
“I’ve been learning to use basic spells in a load of different ways. Some of them look like powerful spells, but they’re really just a complicated way of applying the basics. She’s been showing me some more difficult ones, too, but I don’t have them memorised yet.” Twilight shrugged.
After that, the audience gradually broke up as talk turned to Twilight’s time as the Empress’s apprentice. The three were impressed to learn Twilight slept right across from the Empress, and loved hearing more about palace life and living amongst the sophisticates and cultured officials of the Empire. However, much to Twilight’s chagrin, they bombarded her with endless questions about the more cosmetic and trivial aspects of Equestrian high society; the fashions, the jewellery, and (Twilight groaned inwardly whenever they asked) the colts and the young lords. They seemed disappointed when she couldn’t elaborate on the last subject. The talk of colts, however, reminded her of a question she had wanted to ask since she arrived.
“Hey girls, do you know where Orion is?”
Lemon Hearts rolled her eyes. “Can’t help but think about your coltfriend, huh, Twilight?”
The lavender unicorn blushed furiously. “That’s not what he is, Lemon! We’re just friends.”
“I think we know that’s not true,” the blue-haired unicorn grinned. “Look at her blush!”
Moondancer once again stepped in to save Twilight from Lemon Hearts’ teasing. “Knock it off, Lemon.” She poked her friend in the ribs and turned her attention to Twilight. “Miss Loch enrolled him in some kind of vocational training. He’s been gone for about two days, but I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
“Oh… well, when he comes back, please tell him I dropped by.”
Moondancer nodded, but then looked past Twilight and her expression hardened. Lemon Hearts’ ears folded back in anxiety, and Twinkle’s face took on an air of confused distaste, as if she’d stepped in an unexpected mud puddle. Twilight became aware of nervous, shuffling steps behind her and twisted around.
It was an older earth pony colt, one she knew all too well as one of Blitz’s cronies. Cobble, I think? Twilight narrowed her eyes, instantly defensive, but the look on his face was one she’d never seen before. The beige colt clearly wasn’t looking for someone to pick on – he had such a downcast expression, the filly couldn’t help a faint twinge of sympathy.
“What do you want?” Moondancer growled.
The colt hesitated in the face of the white filly’s hostility, but swallowed and trotted up to Twilight. “I… I just wanted to tell you…” He swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”
Twilight furrowed her brow. “Really?”
“Y-yeah. I see now that I did real bad and I’m sorry for it.”
The lavender filly raised her brow. Sure, you’re sorry now that I’m somepony important, she thought cynically. Then a feline smile curled her lips. She had a perfect opportunity here, and it would be a pity to waste it. “Don’t apologise just to me. Say it to Moondancer, Lemon Hearts and Twinkle. I know you picked on them too.”
He looked at them. “I’m sorry. Please, I really am.”
Twilight stared in amazement for a moment, surprised that he accepted the humiliation so willingly. But then, the threat of her displeasure had sent Blueblood scurrying away, a little commoner girl commanding a Prince of Equestria! The servants and staff at the palace were all too eager to please the Empress’s protégée. When she thought of Cobble in those terms, it seemed only right that he acquiesce to her new authority.
“What’s goin’ on here, Cobble?”
The new voice was gravelly, or as gravelly as a colt’s voice could get. Pushing his way to the forefront of the group, a large, older pegasus with the coat colour of a lion and an unkempt, knotted amber mane narrowed his eyes at his former lackey. Blitz was big for his age, towering over even Cobble. Cruel confidence and irritation was plain to see on his face.
Cobble whirled around, wide-eyed. “Nothing! I was just–”
“He was just apologising to Twilight and everypony for being so mean,” Moondancer said snidely.
Blitz sneered. “Oh really? You’re friends with all the little foals now, ain’t you Cobble?”
“No!” the earth pony snapped by reflex. “Er, maybe?” he amended, his eyes darting from face to face, then back to Twilight. He swallowed and looked at Blitz. “I just think, y’know, it’d be good to kind of… stop picking on them? I mean, it gets kinda boring… an’ nopony likes it…”
“Or it’s because she’s got you scared,” the pegasus accused as he stabbed a hoof in Twilight’s direction. “I can’t believe you’re scared of a titchy little nerd. I thought you were cooler than that, but I guess you’re just another loser!”
Cobble opened his mouth to speak, but Blitz surged forward, pushing past him to loom over Twilight. The little filly held back an instinctive squeal of fear, but she couldn’t help leaning away from the imposing colt. He stood over her like a fiery monster, somehow seeming as big as Ladon was. And he’s not friendly once you get to know him, said a squeaky voice at the back of her mind.
“So what’re you doing back, nerd?” he growled. “I thought you went off to play princess at the palace.”
“I’m just visiting,” she replied, her voice getting quieter as she spoke. Images of Blitz’s past actions flashed through her head.
“Throwing your weight around, huh? Well I ain’t gonna bow to you ‘cos you’re living at the palace and wearing a stupid dress.” He snorted, blowing a gust of hot air from his nostrils. “I’m not gonna come and beg for forgiveness like this wimp. You know why?”
In spite of herself, Twilight answered. “Why?”
He leaned in menacingly. Twilight’s mind reeled, her heart pumping. His many, many threats over the past year repeated in her mind. Why isn’t anypony doing anything? Where are the adults? She searched the field for them, but found that the only ones outside were refereeing the matches of hoofball and stormball that were raging on.
“It’s ‘cos I know that even though you’ve moved away and you’re living it up with servants and diamonds and fancy clothes at the palace, you ain’t changed,” he said. “You’re still the same scrawny cry-baby. The same no-friends nerd. The same little filly who’s too much of a stupid wimp to do anything.”
He ended his little speech with a smirk and moved in closer, almost chest to chest with her. He was surrounding her now, and Twilight sunk further towards the ground, actually cowering. She screwed her eyes shut. She wanted to curl up in a ball and cry until he had his fill and went away. It’s not true, she told herself. He can’t hurt me. But that thought was trapped behind doubt wrapped in a hard shell of fear. All his torments played through her mind; all the times she ran away in tears and said nothing to anyone. His sneer and his size filled her thoughts completely until she just wanted a way out. Please, please just go away! Somepony, help me!
And there appeared an image of Nightmare Moon, smiling down at her encouragingly, just like she did in their lessons. A brutish bully is terrorising your peers, and now he has you cornered, the Empress said inside her head. He’s been tormenting you for the past year and doesn’t seem afraid of anything. What do you do?
Her eyes snapped open. I give him something to fear.
The images of Blitz’s cruelty and threats fell silent in her mind. The panic washed away, leaving behind clear thought. Though Nightmare Moon was away at the palace, Twilight felt as she had been given the alicorn’s courage. She rose to her hooves, forcing the bigger colt back a step.
“I’m not stupid,” she said.
“What was that?”
Her eyes met those of the colt that had bullied her for the past twelve months. Blitz looked confused for a moment, then smirked.
“Oh look, now you’re putting on a brave face. You know what? I’m gonna–”
Twilight’s horn flashed. Blitz’s hooves were swept out from under him. He fell to the ground with a thud. After he got over his daze, he looked up into Twilight’s narrowed eyes.
“You’re not going to do anything,” she said. Her voice was the same commanding, no-arguments tone that had sent Prince Blueblood the Tenth scurrying away. Only this time, it had an edge of righteous fury. “Do you know why?”
Blitz’s face cycled through a range of emotions; confusion, anger and shock. The unicorn swore she could even see a hint of fear in his eyes. “Why?” he asked.
“Because if you do, I can do one of two things,” Twilight said, her voice dropping as though to keep the threat private. “I could blast you over that tree over there, or I can send for my guard.”
“Guard?” his eyes widened.
“Yes, guard. Two of the Empress’s personal bodyguards, actually. You’ve forgotten I don’t just live at the Imperial Palace; I’m also the protégée of Empress Nightmare Moon herself. So all your threats are just hot air unless you want to follow through, and the Honour Guards won’t react very well to that.”
Blitz, shaking, climbed to his hooves and did his best to look cocky. “You won’t do that. You’re just bluffing.”
Without breaking eye contact with the bully, Twilight replied, “Moondancer, can you please go out front and ask the armoured ponies by the chariot to come here?”
Moondancer reacted as though she had just been freed from being encased in stone by a cockatrice. Jolting at the mention of her name, she nodded and began to walk away.
“Wait!” the pegasus colt called out. The word was more a squeak than anything.
Moondancer stopped and he turned back to Twilight, swallowing. “L-look, I didn’t really mean anything, okay? It was just some harmless joking around.”
“Jokes?” One colt, emboldened from the events unfolding in front of him, stepped forward. “You flushed my head down a toilet and dumped me in a trash can!”
“You stole Silver Song’s doll and tore its head off, and laughed when she cried!” another foal burst out.
Blitz looked more and more panicky by the minute. Twilight kept her expression flat and hard, but inwardly, she was staring in wonder. She hadn’t just made him fear her more than she feared him, she had given the others confidence. One by one, the crowd – now over a dozen ponies – came nearer him, angrily calling out his crimes. The amber-maned pegasus turned his wide, scared eyes back to Twilight as she spoke to him.
“It doesn’t sound like people found it funny, Blitz,” she said, stepping towards him. Her pastel yellow dress felt like a royal cloak. Nothing could stop her. Certainly not a petty bully who liked to threaten little fillies.
He shrank back. “O-okay, so they weren’t jokes.” He swallowed, his next words shaky and fearful. “I’m… sorry, all right? Just please, don’t get those guards!”
“What was that?” Moondancer asked, though no one in the crowd could have missed his words. “Speak up, we can’t hear you.”
Anger flickered across the colt’s face, but a glance toward Twilight brought back the nervous remorse. “I’m sorry for bullying you!” he squeaked.
“Say you’re sorry like you mean it,” Twilight ordered. “To everypony. Look them in the eye and apologise. Or I’ll get the guards and we’ll take you back to the palace dungeons.”
He gulped and did as she demanded. A terrified Blitz literally begged the foals for forgiveness. Making Blueblood back down was nothing compared to the rush of watching her long-time tormentor grovel. She breathed deeply and allowed herself a smile. Was this how the Empress felt when one of her enemies bent over backwards to accommodate her demands?
The pegasus returned, utterly humiliated and emasculated in front of so many of the ponies he had once scared into submission. He looked at her, worry written on his face, silently begging that this was enough. Time to drive it home, she decided.
“I don’t want to hear a word about you bullying anypony again, understand?” He nodded. “Because if I do, I will tell the Empress you hurt me and my friends, and she will send the guards down to drag you to the palace in chains.”
“I… I understand.” Blitz hung his head, thoroughly defeated.
“Good,” Twilight snorted as the colt retreated. Her heartbeat slowed and the high of victory gradually faded, leaving the purple unicorn feeling wobbly in the legs. Already, the crowd of foals was splintering away, returning to their own groups and games. Blitz slinked inside, doing his best to not attract any more attention. Twilight turned to Moondancer, Twinkle and Lemon Hearts and grinned sheepishly. “It’s, uh… it’s been nice to see you girls again.”
Twinkle and Lemon Hearts seemed to still be in shock, but Moondancer nodded and returned her grin.
“Yeah, it sure has, Twilight,” she said. “We’ll be sure to write to you at the palace.”
Twilight said her goodbyes and returned to the chariot, quite ready to return home. She sat in silence throughout the ride back to the palace, barely registering the city go by. The filly was going over the past few weeks in her head. She thought back to all the times she made a request, or an outright demand, and it was executed to the letter. Servants and even government officials went out of their way to please her, and she hadn’t seen a hair of Blueblood’s hide all week. Lemon Hearts was right on one thing. Adopted or not, she had the authority of a member of the royal family. She had the power of a princess.
And she liked it.