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“I have complete confidence that you will save the Crystal Empire. Now go... there is no time to lose.” The doors to the throne room closed, hiding the royal sisters from view.
Stunned, Twilight turned to go. Princess Celestia wanted her – her! – to save an entire Empire from the forces of Darkness...
She didn’t just... give me a thirty-second infodump and... send me on my way?
No, surely... I mean, she wouldn’t...
It’s not such a big deal though, really? I mean, she... does this sort of thing... to us... all the time...
Slowly, deep in Twilight’s brain, levers and switches were thrown, and meticulously engineered gears began to turn. For the first time, something – some little meter or warning light deep in her psyche that had remained utterly dark her entire life – went ping...
...or perhaps, snap.
The Princesses had just turned back and were walking to their thrones, murmuring to each other, when there was a sudden flurry of knocking at the doors. Surprised, Celestia and Luna looked back – but before either of them could raise their magic, the doors flew open with a bang. There stood Twilight Sparkle, wearing a very unsettling smile.
“Ohhh, Princess,” she said in a sing-song voice as she trotted into the room. “Just a few things I wanted to ask before I go, aheh. After all, before I go rushing off to the Crystal Empire, I should make sure that I’ve prepared, right?”
Celestia and Luna stared at one another, then at Twilight. Celestia regarded her pupil, eyebrow raised. “...Yyyes, of course, my faithful student,” she said hesitantly. “What were you needing?”
“Oh, nothing much, just a few teeny-tiny things,” Twilight said with forced cheerfulness as she trotted past the thrones, heading for the far end of the room. Both Princesses trailed after her, bemused. “And I’m sure you can spare them – I mean, after all, you’re the Princesses, right?”
Celestia’s brow furrowed slightly. She wasn’t sure where this was going. “Such as?”
Twilight beamed like a schoolfilly. “Oh, let’s start with the basics. Equipment, supplies, a few train tickets...” The smile slid off her face like it was greased as she stepped up next to the door to the royal vault. “...The Elements of Harmony...”
Celestia started to protest. “And what makes you think that – ”
“Evil unicorn king, cursed empire, vanished a thousand years, call it a hunch,” Twilight deadpanned. “We’re pretty likely to need ‘em, and it’s a long way to send Spike to fetch ‘em when we do.”
“We keep the Elements here for safekeeping – ”
Twilight channeled her Inner Spike. “And how well is that working out for you?” she said, eyebrows level. “Out of the last three times we needed the Elements, and I mean desperately absolutely immediately needed them, you had put them ‘someplace safe.’ The first time, my friends and I nearly got killed retrieving them from the Everfree Forest. The second time, Discord got them first anyway, right out from under your nose. All he would have had to do was drop them in the ocean or chuck them in a live volcano. If he hadn’t been an idiot, Equestria would have been screwed.
“And the third time, we never got to them at all! Chrysalis and her army nearly had Canterlot for lunch because we couldn’t get to the vault that held Equestria’s most powerful weapon, and we couldn’t have unlocked it if we had!
“The whole thing’s stupid anyway. My friends and I are the only ones who can use the Elements, and they only work when they and we are all together. If someone wanted to take the Orbital Friendship Beam out of the equation, they’d just have to kidnap us – and not even all of us, just one. Which they wouldn’t dare try if we had the Elements at hand to defend ourselves. You might as well just let us keep the Elements with us all the time; at least we’d stand a fighting chance when whatever Sealed-Evil-in-a-Can due to escape this week shows up and tries to eat us.” Throughout her entire monologue, Twilight had kept a neutral expression on her face. It would take someone very observant to notice the twitch in one of her eyes.
Celestia’s normally benevolent expression had gone rather neutral as well. “I... concede the point. Very well,” she said, stepping forward to unlock the vault.
Luna suddenly brushed past her. “Allow me, dear Sister,” she said, her voice suspiciously sweet. She lowered her horn and unlocked the vault; then, with a flick of indigo magic, she retrieved the box with the elements inside and passed it to Twilight who, after opening it and confirming that the Elements were in fact inside, nodded and slipped it into her saddlebag.
“Anything else?” Celestia said, her voice a little cool.
Twilight scrunched up her nose and smirked. “Ohhhh, just a few teeny-weeny other little things...”
Celestia sighed. “What?”
“Guards. Soldiers. You know – big, burly, covered in armor, all over the place, spend all their time flexing their muscles at the noblewomen, supposed to protect Equestria from its enemies...”
“Twilight, I’m not caring for this tone...” Celestia said warningly.
“I’ve been thinking about that a while,” Twilight continued as if Celestia hadn’t spoken. “That having a few soldiers along for a dangerous mission might be a good idea, I mean. At least since, you know, that one time you sent me and five other teenage mares up a mountain to evict a giant fire-breathing dragon. Or when you sent us out alone to face Discord. Or that time – ”
Celestia’s face was red. “You were in no real danger from the dragon...”
“No danger?! That dragon nearly had hickory-smoked unicorn for a bedtime snack!” Twilight shrieked. The change was so startling that the Princesses actually took a step or two back, hastily reevaluating just how close the high-strung little unicorn was to an explosion. The last time Twilight had lost her grip, ponies had been turned into houseplants, and the School for Gifted Unicorns ended up needing a new roof.
In the next blink Twilight had composed herself and was back to speaking in her normal voice. “So I decided it would probably would be proper if, when I’m going out on a dangerous mission in the name of the Crown – like, say, now – that my friends and I have some backup. Just a few someponies under my direction with more combat training and experience than a party planner, a dressmaker, a weather-pony, a veterinarian and a farmer.” She held her forehooves apart. “Juuuuust an eeny-weeny bit more.”
“Not that it’s particularly important,” Twilight went on breezily. “I mean, my friends and I are only the Bearers of the Elements, it’s not like it would be a national catastrophe if we were stomped by a dragon, or eaten by an Ursa Major, or pincushioned with arrows by highwayponies, or kidnapped by buffalo, or – ”
“Point. Made.” Celestia said tersely. The Solar Diarch was developing a rather frosty demeanor as this little discussion went on.
The Lunar Diarch, however, was amused as hell. “All quite sensible requests, Twilight Sparkle,” she said in a far-too-pleased voice. “Canst thou think of anything else thou might desire...?”
“An expense account, maybe,” Twilight noted. “And maybe access to some of the royal amenities, like the royal zeppelin or the chariot, seeing as we’re in a hurry? Two or three unicorn mages from the Academy might be nice,” she added, without looking up. She had laid out her saddlebags on the floor and was shuffling through their contents. “In this case, one that’s versed in the Crystal Empire might be handy, seeing as how I know diddly-squat about the place. If not, I could still use some magical help... and some scholastic. Thus far the magical expertise on the team has been me – and a seamstress.”
She looked up. “Come to think of it, we’re lopsided all the way through. We’ve got the best flier in Equestria, and a pegasus who almost never flies, plus an earth pony who’s as strong as a team of oxen, and another who’s fifty percent cake by body weight. It’s a miracle we haven’t been squashed like bugs half a dozen times. Seeing as I’m trying to break a curse on an entire Empire, a few more ponies with some actual book knowledge might be, you know, useful. Oh, and that reminds me: I have one more request...”
Twilight spun around and leapt forward, standing nose-to-nose with the Princess of the Sun. Celestia stumbled back and fell down on her backside in surprise.
“Tell me what. The buck. Is going on.”
Celestia, Diarch of the Sun, Princess of Equestria, the millennia-old alicorn ruler, babbled. “What do you – I’ve told you – but I – everything you need to know – ”
“Buffalo brownies!” Twilight said. “All the way back to Nightmare Moon, you’ve been treating me like a mushroom; keeping me in the dark and feeding me loads of horseapples!” Luna suppressed a snort of laughter. Oblivious, Twilight went on speaking, mimicking the Solar Princess. “Dear Twilight, get your nose out of those musty old books and go schedule a party... it’s not like Night Eternal is about to fall or anything...”
“I didn’t tell you about Nightmare Moon because if I had, the plan would have unraveled. You had to make friends – real friends – for the Elements to work...” Celestia tried to explain calmly.
“You think maybe the time to start on that might’ve been a little sooner than the night before her return?!” Twilight yelled. “And never mind that – a few heads-up notes someplace might have been appreciated! ‘If you are reading this, Twilight, my demigod sister has returned from the moon, she can be defeated with the Elements of Harmony, here’s a map!’ ‘Dear Twilight, that ugly statue in the garden is an evil avatar of Chaos, be careful, don’t let him reverse your brain! Here are a few dozen armed guards for when you face down a mad demigod of chaos!’ ‘Hey Twilight, guess what, my niece is marrying your brother! But be on your guard, we’ve been threatened by the Changeling Kingdom!’ ‘Twilight, dragons can grow really really fast, keep an eye on Spike!’ ‘Oh by the way, Twilight, my pet bird is a phoenix, no need to worry if it looks sick or bursts into flame!’
“And now this time it’s ‘Dear Twilight, the Crystal Kingdom, previously ruled by an evil unicorn, has reappeared after a thousand years, it has a curse on it, go save it!’ What crystal kingdom? What curse? Where’s the evil leader, and how in Equestria am I supposed to save it? I could get more information off the back of a hoofball bubblegum card!”
Celestia got to her hooves. She towered over the ranting little unicorn, clearly losing her temper. “You have been told all you need to know!” she said in the Canterlot Royal Voice. “I told you, this was to be a test – ”
Twilight was too far gone to even flinch. “A test?!” she shouted back. “The fate of an entire kingdom at stake, and you want to make it a TEST?!
“All that tells me is that you already know all the answers, and precisely how to fix this, and you just aren’t telling me! I don’t care what it is you’re ‘testing’ me for. Forget it, I don’t care! The welfare of other ponies is supposed to come first for us, no matter what. So either tell me everything I need to know, or find somepony else to do this, because I’m not going to imperil hundreds or even thousands of innocent ponies trying to get a gold sticker from you on a TEST!”
The throne room’s walls rang in the silence. Celestia stood there in shock, staring at her pupil, mouth agape. “So, what’s it going to be?” Twilight said, suddenly as mellow and cheerful as... well, truthfully, as she’d never been.
Celestia’s mouth closed so suddenly her teeth clicked. She sighed, closed her eyes, and summoned her magic. There was a pop!, and several items appeared in midair: a sizable book with a latch and an embossed cover; a large, ancient scroll; and several smaller scrolls with the royal seal.
“This volume is a brief history of the Crystal Empire, and is the most complete source of information we have on Sombra’s former kingdom,” she said. “These scrolls give you the authority to recruit whatever troops you deem fit. Show it to the acting Captain of the Guard. This one is to the Headmaster of the Unicorn Academy, allowing you command the services of any of the scholars and researchers of the Academy for the duration of your mission... and this one is a blank check to the royal treasury. Please keep all your receipts.” The last item to go into Twilight’s saddlebags was the ancient-looking parchment. “This... is a detailed description of the curse laid on the Crystal Empire – or at least, as much detail as we could ascertain – and some few notes on what might be necessary to break it.” She looked down at her student, face impassive. “Is there anything else you wish to say before you go, Twilight Sparkle?”
Twilight nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid I can no longer be your student.” Pain shot across Princess Celestia’s features. “I can’t be a pupil to somepony who is constantly misleading me, or deceiving me, or conducting little tests on me. I can’t learn from somepony who is always... leaving me in the dark.” She took a deep, calming breath. “I don’t know what you had planned for me... and I really don’t care anymore. After this mission is done... I quit.”
She put on her saddlebags, got to her feet, and bowed politely to both Princesses. “I won’t let you down, your Majesties.” And with a smile, she trotted out of the throne room.
The doors closed with a bang. Celestia and Luna stared after the departed unicorn; Celestia, with an expression of shock and dismay and slowly dawning loss; Luna, with an enigmatic smirk. Bewildered, Celestia looked at her sister. She found little comfort in the seemingly-unfeeling grin on the Lunar Princess’ face.
“Oh, Luna... what has happened here?” she asked in dismay.
Luna gave a “tch!” sound and rolled her eyes. “Thy own chess-playing and masterminding and oh-so-clever mummery has come a-cropper, is what has happened,” she said. “Ponies speak of being unwilling pawns... but methinks even were they King and Queen, they would resent being played with.”
Celestia shook her head. “But... I had such hopes for her,” she said. “This test was to be such an important step...”
“Fie on thy test,” Luna said. Her knowing smirk grew into a know-it-all grin. “From what I did see, Twilight did pass the real test with flying colors.” She sauntered past her unhappy sister. “Will thou do as well on thy portion of the exam, I wonder?” she added, before vanishing into the shadows.
Out in the hallway, in a dim alcove where nopony could see her, Twilight sat hunched over, weeping quietly. After a few minutes her tears stopped; she wiped her eyes with a hoof and started walking again. Places to go, ponies to see... enough time for regrets later.
There was a Crystal Empire to save.
King Francis was a hearty king, and loved a royal sport,
And one day as his lions fought, sat looking on the court;
The nobles filled the benches, and the ladies in their pride,
And ‘mongst them sat the Count de Lorge, with one for whom he sighed:
And truly ‘twas a gallant thing to see that crowning show,
Valour and love, and a king above, and the royal beasts below.
Ramped and roared the lions, with horrid laughing jaws;
They bit, they glared, gave blows like beams, a wind went with their paws;
With wallowing might and stifled roar they rolled on one another;
Till all the pit with sand and mane was in a thunderous smother;
The bloody foam above the bars came whisking through the air;
Said Francis then, “Faith, gentlemen, we’re better here than there.”
De Lorge’s love o’erheard the King, a beauteous lively dame
With smiling lips and sharp bright eyes, which always seemed the same;
She thought, the Count my lover is brave as brave can be;
He surely would do wondrous things to show his love of me;
King, ladies, lovers, all look on; the occasion is divine;
I’ll drop my glove, to prove his love; great glory will be mine.
She dropped her glove, to prove his love, then looked at him and smiled;
He bowed, and in a moment leaped among the lions wild:
The leap was quick, return was quick, he has regained his place,
Then threw the glove, but not with love, right in the lady’s face.
“By God!” said Francis, “rightly done!” and he rose from where he sat:
“No love,” quoth he, “but vanity, sets love a task like that.”
The Glove and the Lions
By Leigh Hunt