"....But doesn't that just mean that all the tribute stuff that went to the unicorns just now goes to the Princesses?" Nyx frowned.
"Actually no, it doesn't," Twilight said. "Can you guess why?"
Nyx scrunched up her face, trying to think. "Beeeeecause the Princesses stopped all the taxes?"
Twilight laughed. "Noooo, we still pay taxes. Try again."
Princess Cadence was going to make a public announcement that day. It was going to be a formal occasion, and Nyx and Twilight were in the process of getting ready. They were dressed in their best outfits, and Twilight was brushing out Nyx's mane. While she worked, she'd been giving Nyx an impromptu lesson on some of the quirks of Equestrian-- and Crystal Empire-- government and history.
Nyx frowned. "I need more data before I form a hippopotamus," she said solemnly.
"That's 'hypothesis,' dear," Twilight said, amused.
"Hypothesis. And I do need more data," Nyx said.
"Okay, I guess that's true," Twilight said. "How about this: why could Princess Celestia give Granny Smith's family that big chunk of land?"
"Because she owned it?"
"Got it in one," Twilight said. "Princess Celestia and Princess Luna both own lots of land; farmland, city land, beachfront property too. They own lots and lots of businesses and buildings and other things, too. Even if they weren't Princesses, they'd be very very rich."
"So they don't need any money because they make lots of their own, right?"
"Actually they don't get a single bit."
"Wait, what?" Nyx tried to twist around in her seat to look up at her mother in confusion.
Twilight gently but firmly turned her around so she was facing forward again. "Eyes forward, please." Twilight said. Nyx grumped, but she complied. "You see, about five hundred years ago, since Princess Celestia owned land, Princess Celestia had to pay bills and taxes and other things like anyone else. And Princess Celestia was having trouble with debts. And taxes. And bills. And bills and bills and bills and more bills....
"So Princess Celestia made the House of Lords a deal. If they would clear out her debts, forget her taxes, and give her a yearly allowance, she would let the House of Lords have all the money made off Princess Celestia's lands and buildings and businesses. ALL the profits. For the rest of her life, or as long as she was on the throne. So they took the deal. They cleared out all her taxes, paid off her other debts, and put her on a yearly allowance. Princess Cadence is trying to make a similar arrangement here with the Crystal Empire."
"Gee." Nyx said thoughtfully. It was weird thinking Princess Celestia was on an allowance like her or her friends. "How much does she get?"
"Oh, about fifty million bits," Twilight said.
"Fifty million bits?" Nyx squeaked. Holy cow. "That's a lotta cupcakes!"
Twilight chuckled. "It sure is," she said. "But you know how much the government makes off the Princess' lands? Two hundred and fifty million bits."
"Wow, that means--" Nyx concentrated for a moment. "That means they make two hundred million bits off the Princesses every year..."
"Well, a hundred and fifty million bits, since Princess Luna returned," Twilight said. "They have to give her an allowance too."
Nyx thought for a moment. "Wow. They're taking the Princesses to the cleaners."
Twilight snerked. "Well, Princess Celestia always told me it was worth it not to have to fill out tax forms," she said. "Okay, now turn around and let me look at you." Nyx stood up and turned around. She was dressed in a light summer dress of Rarity's design that brightened her appearance to a more 'summery' look. Her wings were covered-- not hidden, only lightly covered-- by a drape of light thin cloth over the shoulders. Rarity had wisely decided that Nyx should neither hide her alicorn nature, nor openly flaunt it; either approach would draw attention, she argued. One could tell that Nyx was an alicorn, but unless she flared her wings out from under the cloth, one would have to scrutinize her rather closely to see it.
The ensemble was somewhat marred by the addition of a pair of sunglasses. Nyx's sensitive eyes still hurt her in the dazzle of the Crystal Empire day, so it couldn't be helped. Thankfully Twilight had managed to find some more subtly sized sunglasses than the enormous pair Nyx had adopted on her arrival. "There, pretty as a picture," she said. "Even if you do look like a movie star with those glasses."
"Yes, I'm fabulous," Nyx said, striking a pose. She held out a hoof, nose in the air. "No, no autographs, please--"
Twilight chuckled and got to her hooves. "And how do I look?" She was wearing a dress based loosely on her gown from the first Grand Galloping Gala. It was more conservatively cut, though; the high collar had been changed to an off the shoulder cut, and the skirt was less billowy and more contoured to her torso. It went well with her Crystal Empire manestyling.
"You look very pretty, Mommy," Nyx said. "You always do."
"You better watch it, Twilight, she's buttering you up for something," Spike's voice came through the open door. He stepped into the room. He'd opted for his all purpose tuxedo... minus the hat and plus a pair of shades. Nyx blew a raspberry at him; he cheerfully blew a raspberry back.
"Looking sharp, Spike," Twilight said.
"As always," Spike agreed, smartly adjusting his tie. "Really though, you do look nice, Twilight."
"Thank you Spike," Twilight said. "And thank you too, Nyx." Twilight absently smoothed her skirt with her magic. "Come on, let's go join Cadence and Shining Armor."
"So what's this big public to-do about, anyway?" Spike asked as they trotted out of the royal quarters and into the hall.
"Cadence is going to make an official announcement about the hunt for the tomb of Chancellor Level Head," Twilight said. "She wants to let the Crystal Empire ponies know what we're up to-- and let them know who's going to be doing the hunting."
"You!" Nyx said, giving a little hop.
Twilight chuckled. "Yes, me. But not just me; there's going to be some other ponies involved, too. Some ponies from the Crystal Empire; some from Equestria. Princess Celestia and Princess Luna are both very interested in this expedition; they say it will have repercussions for ponies in both countries, and all over the world!"
"Boy, no pressure," Spike grunted. He made a mental note to start stocking up on stress squeezy toys and chamomile tea; something told him Twilight was going to be going through both at an alarming rate.(1)
They met Cadence and Shining Armor in the hallway. Cadence in her royal tiara, torc and sandals; Shining Armor in his dress uniform. "Ah, are we all ready, then?" Shining Armor said. There was a muted chorus of agreements.
Cadence paused. "Wait, one thing..." She looked Nyx over, then looked to Twilight. "We've all been lucky so far. The Crystal Ponies don't associate Nyx's appearance with Nightmare Moon...."
"They don't even know about Nightmare Moon," Spike noted. "They slept through that whole mess."
"Exactly. But there's going to be ponies from the press at this, and photographers, and radio, and... well, let's just not press our luck."
A few potential headlines flashed across Twilight's mind. She shuddered. "Do you want me to get her disguise?" Twilight said, uncertain. She knew how Nyx hated having her wings covered up-- it was uncomfortable and made it easy for her to overheat.
"That won't be necessary," Cadence said. "Here." She tapped the tip of her horn to Nyx's forehead.
Nyx 'eeped' as a strange, tingly sensation spread over her from horntip to hooves. She looked down at herself; her inky black coat was now snowy white. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in a nearby wall. Weird. I look a little like Sweetiebelle this way, she thought. Well maybe not quite as curly in the mane and tail...
"There," Cadence said, satisfied. "That should last all day. It should be enough to deflect any undue attention, at least."
Twilight looked as if she was going to object, but she bit her lower lip and nodded. "I suppose it's the best thing," she said. Ever since Nyx had been returned to her, Twilight had followed a policy of casual anonymity with Nyx. While she was careful not to do anything to draw pony's attention to herself or her daughter, neither did she disguise Nyx or hide her identity. There were just too many ponies who knew Nyx already; besides, she wanted Nyx to have as normal a fillyhood as she could possibly manage-- and spending the rest of her fillyhood skulking around in disguise wasn't the way to do it.
So far it had worked. Everypony in Ponyville knew Nyx already, and pony's tendency to ignore or forget what wasn't deliberately attracting their attention had worked in their favor.(2) But Twilight knew when it was time to compromise; there was no sense in giving the press any printable opportunities for starting a national panic.
"Just for the evening, sweetie," she said to Nyx, giving her a nuzzle. "Okay?"
Nyx nodded, still looking herself over. "It's okay," she said. "It feels a little weird..."
"What, does it itch?" Twilight asked.
"No, it doesn't feel weird like that," Nyx tried to explain. She looked at her reflection again. "I just feel weird being a different color."
Twilight made a little 'oh' of understanding.
"Well, we can't keep our guests waiting," Shining Armor. He sounded a little nervous. "shall we, ladies?" They all trotted for the banquet hall, Spike bringing up the rear, the royal guard falling in behind them as they went.
Cadence, Shining and their advisors had debated how to make the announcement. They had settled on a banquet, inviting both the Crystal Empire nobility and the press. It was a diplomatic tactic as old as time; one didn't need to be a genius to realize that news tended to be accepted more amiably over a full belly and the rim of a full cup. Cadence, fortunately, had not succumbed to the same conceptual drift that plagued most cultures--- the accretion of time and tradition and formality that turned what was supposed to be a pleasant feast into a stuffy, nerve-racking ordeal. This was to be no rubber-chicken banquet, not on Cadence's watch; The food was good, filling, simple and plentiful, the beverages were served in large cups and the portions were hearty.
And yes, the Empire did have nobles, though they were even newer to their positions than their new Princess. Sombra had wiped out all the existing noble families, and erased any trace he could find of their family trees. Cadence had been in the ironically enviable position of being able to pick out new ponies upon whom to bestow the titles of knight and baron, lord and lady. Consequently there were few of noble title at all, as of yet. Cadence wanted to establish a system like in Equestria, but it appeared that whatever was formed was going to have to be drastically modified simply for lack of sufficent lords to fill a House.
This was all written on the wind, for now; the rebuilding and recovery of the Empire took precedent, and for now Cadence was an absolute ruler and her few hoof-picked Nobles were supervisors, each given a portion of the Imperial territory to oversee on Cadence's behalf. The nobles and courtiers she was now going to address were consequently a skittish bunch; Many of them had already become tenacious in their scheming and powerbrokering, unconvinced that their positions of power and prestige would last-- and taking a distressingly short-term perspective as a result. Canterlot nobles made agreements and alliances and back-room hoofshake deals for an idle chance at a bit more prestige at court. These courtiers, on the other hand, were playing for keeps, determined to make hay while the sun still shined. Cadence was constantly working to persuade them that their positions truly were for keeps.
Hopefully, some of the announcements the royal couple were to make at this banquet would ease their concerns.
They arrived in the gleaming banquet hall, the Crystal Heart's bedazzling effect blanketing them as they stepped through the door. It was still early; ponies were still milling about, chatting with one another; those from the press chatting up various nobleponies or their aids in hope of an early scoop. Cameraponies were setting up their equipment to get the best angle or walking about snapping idle shots, flashbulbs popping, while others-- presumably from the radio stations-- were setting up the microphone and sound system at the head of the banquet table where Shining Armor and Cadence would be seated.
The three adults soon were engrossed in a conversation with one of the new titled nobility, who was nervous about some trade agreement or other and how it would affect the businesses in his community. Nyx found herself unable to follow any of it, and was quickly bored. She drifted away from Twilight's side-- just a little ways!-- so she could watch the pony setting up the sound system. He was a scruffy blue and teal earth pony with a microphone cutie mark and an enormous pair of headphones wrapped around his head, and he was lying on the floor under the podium, mucking about with cables and wires and a box covered with dials. Every now and then he would stop and tap the microphone, making the speakers thump, then shake his head at whatever he heard through the headphones and go back to fiddling.
After a moment he noticed the tiny white filly watching him work. "Hey kid, do me a favor?" he said. She looked around and pointed to herself with a hoof. "Yeah, you. Would you be a sweetie, hop up on that chair, and say something into the microphone?"
Nyx blinked. "Okay," she said. She climbed up in the chair as instructed and faced the alien device. She hesitated, and looked down at the workpony. "Um, what should I say?" she asked uncertainly.
The pony pulled the headphones away from one ear. "What was that, kid?"
"Um, what should I say, sir?" Nyx said. She was trying to be polite, and his brusque manner was making her nervous. Her voice came out barely louder than Fluttershy.
The techie rolled his eyes. "Just say 'testing,' okay kiddo?" he let the headphone slap back against his ear and stuck his head back under the table. "Just say it loud and clear so I can hear it."
Nyx nodded and took a deep breath.
Now one needs to understand a few things. Nyx, at this point in her life, had absolutely no personal experience with microphones, speakers, or any of the more modern accoutrements of sound broadcasting. As a filly, she'd only seen ponies in Ponyville using megaphones. As Nightmare Moon, she'd relied on the Royal Canterlot voice. Lesson learned: the only way to be heard was to be loud. So when an adult pony with big clunky earmuffs over his ears told her to say something loud enough for him to hear it, she took him at his word.
It wasn't the Royal Canterlot voice, but Luna would probably have applauded the effort.
The walls of the banquet hall vibrated to the tune of well over a hundred decibels of sound. Ponies all over the room nearly jumped out of their skins. The speakers moaned in pain like ocean beasts and spat sparks and smoke, while the hapless techie under the table kicked his back feet into the air and yowled like a timberwolf that had fallen into a wood chipper.
Nyx ran for her life.
It took a few moments for the ponies present to figure out what had happened. When they did, a heartfelt belly laugh went up as the hapless filly ran back and buried her face in her mother's skirts. The laughter only redoubled when the techie made his appearance, wobbling slightly and glaring angrily about, wisps of smoke rising from his headphones.
"Whouf! Nyx, what in Equestria--?" Twilight exclaimed as Nyx plowed into her side. Nyx refused to explain, just trying to hide herself in the folds of Twilight's skirts as an embarrassing number of flashbulbs started going off. "He told me to," was all she managed to squeak out.
Mercifully, the chef and the waitstaff chose that moment to come out and announce that the meal was served. Everypony began cheerfully gravitating to their seats, appetites whetted by the brief wait.
The main banquet tables were arranged in an enormous horseshoe shape, with the head table and the speaker's podium at the top of the curve. Cadence and Shining Armor, of course, sat at the head table. Cadence sat at the exact center of the table with the podium to her right-hoof side and Shining Armor to her left. Twilight, Nyx and Spike, being in Shining's immediate family, sat to Shining's left, in that order, while the Duke, Duchess, and Mayor of the Imperial City sat on the right side of the podium. Two or three high-ranking officers (or ponies who soon would be, once the announcements were made) sat to either side, followed (going down the arms of the horseshoe) by businessponies, dignitaries, high-ranking government officials and their families. The press, various minor celebrities and political hangers-on sat at the many individual tables in the center of the room, encompassed by the sweeping arms of the horseshoe; the serving staff scurrying between the islands or round the outside, offering various platters to the guests.
Despite being large enough to host a hoofball tournament the hall was packed to capacity. Between the gleaming crystal walls, the enormous overhead chandeliers and being packed with-- figuratively and literally-- the glitterati of the Crystal Empire, it looked to Nyx's eyes like a gigantic jewelry box, or a crystal figurine collection come to life.
Nyx looked around the room. Most of the bustle going on was meaningless and confusing to her, and to a young filly confusion and boredom were close cousins. The waitstaff was serving soup (that was all? soup? Wasn't this supposed to be a big fancy meal?) so she ignored them and started scanning the crowd to see if she recognized anypony. Maybe the Wonderbolts were here, or something.
To her surprise, she actually saw somepony she recognized. At one of the smaller round tables, at the very front, a familiar white unicorn colt was seated. It was Bright Eyes, the colt from the movie theatre. She almost-- almost-- shouted out his name, remembering herself only at the last second. Instead she settled for waving her hoof gleefully at the unicorn colt.
...Who saw her and stared at her in absolute confusion. It took Nyx a moment to realize: she had been black the last time he saw her, and now she was a very literal sparkly white. She facehoofed.
Taking a quick look around to make sure noone was looking her way, Nyx lifted up her sunglasses and let the colt see her eyes. Bright Eyes' mouth formed an "o" of recognition when he saw her cat-slit eyes. He looked a little confused, but smiled and waved back.
Twilight brushed her hoof down. "Don't do that," she whispered. A moment later she asked. "Who were you waving at anyway?"
"The colt in the front, there," Nyx said in a stage whisper, pointing at Bright Eyes.
Twilight followed Nyx's hoof. "Oh, you've made a friend here?" she said, pleased. "Where did you meet him?"
"Um, at the movie theater," Nyx said. She recalled certain portions of that little outing that she and Uncle Shiney had neglected to mention to Twilight, and was suddenly VERY attentive of her soup. She hastily spooned some up. "Umm. What kind of soup is this?"
"Bouillabaisse, I think," Twilight said, distracted by the question. "When--"
"It's awful thin. I think it needs more booya."
"--When did you go to the theater?" Twilight pressed on patiently.
"Um, Uncle Shiney took me and Spike," Nyx said casually. Too casually.
Twilight might have only adopted, but her mom-genes were fully active. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously; Nyx was clearly hiding something. "Oh, and what did you see?"
"It was called 'There and Back Again,' I think." Nyx hastily spooned up more soup.
"You think?" Twilight asked, suspicions fully aroused now. Nyx only mumbled something around her spoon. "Nyx, did anything happen at the theatre?"
Nyx gulped and hastily scooped more 'booya base' into her mouth, then pointed to her closed mouth. Can't talk, mouth full...
Twilight pursed her lips, vexed. Fine, we'll play it that way, she thought. "Shiney?" Twilight said sweetly, turning to her brother.
Shining Armor looked up from his bowl, ears pricked. "Yes?"
"I hear you and Nyx went to the movies the other day," Twilight said. "You didn't have any problems, did you?"
Shiney was far from dumb; he could hear the edge in his baby sister's voice. He could also see his niece over her shoulder, staring at him, hooves together in prayer and silently mouthing please! He was also fully aware that he would be in no small amount of trouble if the truth about their little movie theater fiasco got out. He made a quick verbal feint. "Oh, um--- oh, enjoying your soup, Nyx?"
With uncanny speed Nyx managed to spin around and start spooning her soup before Twilight turned around. "Mmm Hmm," Nyx said between spoonfuls. "Mom says it's booya-base."
Shining Armor regarded his own bowl. "Needs more booya."
"I thought so too..."
"You two-- " Twilight said, exasperated. "Tell me what happened at the theater..."
"Can't talk, eating soup," Shining muttered, sampling his.
"Mm hmm," Nyx agreed.
Twilight groaned in exasperation and flipped her hooves heavenward. "Fine. I have other ways to find out..." she said with overtones of menace.
"No you don't, I already bought his silence with a bag of emeralds." Shining didn't even look up from his spoon as he said this.
Twilight gaped at him, then turned and looked at Spike. Who was very busy trying to look innocent, all of a sudden. "Sorry Twi. Confidentiality agreement," he said. "Good soup by the way. You should try it."
Twilight looked to Cadence, silently pleading for help. The crown princess of the Crystal Empire offered no comfort. She was too busy trying to keep a straight face and pretend not to hear anything.
Twilight shot all of her family an evil look. Fortunately they were all spared a gruesome fate by the arrival of the salad course.
The meal proceeded without incident. Nyx found the procedure confusing, and a little exasperating; living with Twilight had made her accustomed to "one meal, one dish," and had been diligently taught to clean her plate. Here they kept switching her plate or bowl out, and often before she'd finished! Twilight didn't say anything though, so Nyx supposed it was okay this time.
She was actually hungry, though, and having her plate snatched away by hovering waitstaff in mid bite was starting to get on her nerves. She'd started to whine at the waitress who took her half-eaten salad that "I wasn't done yet!" but Twilight shushed her and told her there would be plenty of other things, just eat some of what came next. Nyx had obediently stifled her complaints. But she had taken to glaring at the waitstaff if they moved in too quick. Being professionals, the waiters and waitresses ignored her scowls and continued about their task.
Dessert finally arrived. To Nyx's delight, it was ice cream, arranged in thick curling petals, like an enormous rose. For once she didn't mind the chefs making her food all fancy-schmancy. "What kind of ice cream is this?" she whispered to Twilight, picking up her spoon.
"It's gelato," Twilight whispered back.
Puzzled, Nyx took a spoonful looked at it. "What's a gelato taste like?"
Twilight rolled her eyes. "Just eat your dessert..."
Nyx complied. Apparently gelatos tasted like strawberry. She dug in with a relish. I'll bite that waiter if he tries to take this away, she thought to herself.
Fortunately nopony got bit.(3) As ponies were settling back in their seats, chattering amongst themselves and digesting their meal, Princess Cadence got to her hooves and stepped up to the podium and the microphone. Spoons lingered over half-eaten desserts, flashbulbs popped, and countless ponies held their breath.
"My fellow ponies of the Crystal Empire... no, do continue eating," she said with a smile. "The dessert is excellent and it would be a shame to see it wasted. My fellow ponies, we thank you for your attendance. There are matters we must discuss.
"For close to two years now, since the final fall of King Sombra, I have been your Princess. It has been a time of recovery and adjustment for all of us, with many changes made to adapt the Empire to the new world it finds itself in..."
The speech went on in this vein for a few minutes. Most of it went entirely over Nyx's head. Everypony applauded politely when she finished; then she introduced Uncle Shiney-- "Consort Prince Shining Armor"-- and stepped aside as he took the podium.
"Thank you. It has been my duty and my honor in this time of transition to serve as your interim Captain of the Guard. As always, we have been aware that this has caused some uncertainty and... dissatisfaction... with some of you." He paused and cleared his throat. Several ponies looked nervous, as if he had pointed them out in particular. "I do know... and do understand. But like many temporary measures it was necessary for the moment. However we have finally reached a point where the Crystal Empire's standing forces are ready. So It is my honor to present to you the new Captains of the Civil, National, and Royal Guards.(4)"
Two crystal stallions and one mare, all in dress uniform, got to their feet, to enthusiastic applause-- and some surprised murmuring. Nyx leaned over to her mother. "Why is everyone acting so weird?" she whispered.
"I'm not sure, Nyx," Twilight confessed. "It couldn't be because one of them is female,(5) could it?"
"Not exactly," a voice whispered in both their ears. Surprised, the two looked around. Though Cadence's expression was unchanging, Twilight could see her horn glimmer faintly. Ah, the Wind Whistler spell, Twilight realized.
The Princess continued 'speaking,' lifting her wine glass to her lips to cover for the spell. "Traditionally in the Empire, the head of the King or Queen's personal guard was female," she explained. "Never male. Make of that what you will. Putting a stallion in charge of protecting the crown is... unusual, as is putting a mare in charge of Civil enforcement. Differences in perspective on where the back of the herd is, one supposes."
Nyx wasn't quite sure what that all meant, but she decided not to dwell on it. Some of the things ponies made a fuss about just confused her. She watched as Uncle Shiney sat back down. He looked... sad, and tired.
Cadence took the podium again. "This was just the first of several announcements we wished to make for the ponies of the Crystal Empire," she said. "Firstly, I am pleased to announce that in accordance with the Crystal Empire's Constitution, the transitional House has approved a final date for the elections of..."
It went on like this for several minutes, as Cadence announced several new laws, the repeal of some others, new construction projects, a meeting for a trade agreement... in the back of her mind, Nyx found herself thinking that she was very, very glad that she hadn't ended up ruling Equestria after all. It looked like it would have been tons and tons of work-- and boring, too. And that's even when ponies liked you and wanted you to be the ruler!
There was a long pause in Cadence's speech as ponies applauded and flashbulbs popped. Nopony else would have noticed, but there was a slight tremor in Cadence's wings as she prepared to give the last announcement of the day. "There is one final matter that we will be addressing today," she said, her voice calm and clear. "Due to recent discoveries made, and recent revelations made to myself by trusted sources, as Princess of the Crystal Empire I will be commissioning a royal historical and archaeological project. One which shall have great historical significance for the Crystal Empire, and will be of great importance to both the Crystal Empire and Equestria.... and possibly all ponykind." A murmur rolled through the crowd at this. "To give you the full details of this project, I present to you the pony I have selected to lead this project: Twilight Sparkle, first apprentice to Princess Celestia."
Twilight took a deep breath and settled herself. Nyx leaned over and gave her a quick reassuring nuzzle as she got to her feet. Twilight smiled at her and then turned her attention to the podium. She addressed the crowd that was out there somewhere under the popping flashbulbs.
"Since arriving here I have been involved in the reorganizing and restructure of the Crystal Empire's great library," she said. "In the course of my work I was made familiar with the history and folklore of the Crystal Empire. Particularly, the story of its foundation, by Chancellor Level Head." Few ponies exclaimed at this; it was after all a familiar folk tale among them. "And discovered, to my astonishment, it's connection to Equestria's own legend of the Hearthwarming. What I have already learned here, from you, is going to result in a great deal of changes in Equestria's own history books. Not to mention a great deal of yelling and mane-pulling in the Equestrian Historical Society." Laughter greeted her dry announcement.
"But what has been uncovered goes beyond correcting and revising of old folk tales... as important as that may be," she went on. "What has been revealed is that your nation's very founding was predicated upon scientific discoveries-- a whole branch of world-changing knowledge--- that has been lost in the sands of time. Discoveries made by your own founders about the nature of magic itself." The crowd muttered amongst itself. "Those I have spoken to, even those among your own number, dismiss those claims as exaggeration or fabrication, things added after the fact by folklore and tale-tellers to color the story." (This was true; though crystal ponies knew of the legends that the Chancellor had crafted the Crystal Heart, even the crystal pony historians thought it a misunderstanding or a distortion-- that the Chancellor had only overseen the work, or may have at best merely been a rock farmer who provided the crystal from which the unicorns made the heart.)(6) "But what I myself have seen, I know this is not true.(7) The evidence for the truth of the tale is sparse, but solid." (Again, true. She'd procured it herself. With Cadence's help and under the cover of darkness she'd examined the Heart. All magic had a 'hoofprint' of its own. Discord's magic was fundamentally different than unicorn magic; alicorn magic was closer, but still unique... And although the outer layers of the Heart clearly had the tell-tale print of unicorn work, the core of its magic had a signature Twilight had never seen, not from unicorn or alicorn or draconequus or any other magical race.)"The ancient earth ponies did practice true, constructed magic."
A sussuration of astonishment rose in the room. "What is more, The archives indicate that Chancellor Level Head took efforts to preserve his work against the ravages of time, even after his death. Those secrets may have been lost to time, but they may yet be recovered. To those ends, for the sake of science, and to advance the betterment of the earth ponies, the crystal ponies, and all the pony tribes, I will be leading a joint expedition of Equestrian and Crystal Empire ponies to find, and unearth, the lost tomb of Chancellor Level Head."
The mumble of the crowd rose to a roar. The newsponies rose to their feet, trying to shout questions over one another. The popping flashbulbs turned into a torrent of light that made Nyx's eyes water even through her tinted glasses. She held up her hoof, trying to shield her eyes. The bulbs made her foreleg stand out in black and white every time they flashed--
No. It wasn't just the shadows. Her hoof really was black. Every time a flashbulb popped, her snowy-white "disguise" vanished for a moment. And now the flashes were coming so thick and so fast, it was like there was no spell on her at all.
Nyx felt her panic start to rise. She looked over at Spike, who was staring at her with wide eyes. "Uh oh," she heard him say.
They shared a look that spoke volumes:
What do we do?
Nyx squeaked in panic and nearly jumped out of her skin. Someone spotted her! Her disguise was failing and someone spotted her and recognized her! It was all over! She looked around frantically. Certainly not Bright Eyes? No, there he was at his table, hooves over his mouth. He was looking at--
Nyx followed his gaze to another table. A couple of upper-crust looking ponies were sitting there, along with a colt in an uncomfortable looking little-lord-Fauntleroy suit. Nyx recognized the colt almost immediately; it was the lead bully from the movie theater. He was scooted back, pressed into his father's side, and was pointing straight at her with wide eyes and a trembling hoof. "It's her! It's the vampony!" he shrieked in a voice as high as a filly's.
The attention of the crowd turned to the colt and the ruckus he was raising. His parents were busy grappling with him and scolding him for making a scene; he was busy protesting at the top of his lungs that no, she was a vampony, it was a trick, she and her minions of the night were going to spring on them all and suck their blood...
The embarrassed family finally gave it up for a lost cause and hustled out the door, to the amusement and consternation of the crowd. while everyone was staring after the departing group that had made this baffling outburst, Nyx took the opportunity to vanish and dove under the table.
She was joined a split moment later by Spike; she could have hugged him for that. "Okay, great, what do we do?" he muttered under his breath.
"Maybe we could crawl under the tables to the door?" Nyx whimpered.
Spike shook his head. "None of 'em are close enough to get there," he said. "we'll just lay low under here till we get an opening--"
The hem of the tablecloth (thankfully not on the side facing the guests) flipped up. The two looked up; it was Shining Armor. He was leaning over sideways as far as he dared, looking at them out of the corner of his eye. "What. The buck. Is going. On??" He rasped through clenched teeth, smiling desperately.
"The flash bulbs," Spike said. "They're making Nyx's disguise spazz out."
Shining sat up straight and regarded the cameraponies in front of him. They seemed to be using fairly standard equipment, ordinary cameras with those new crystal-crafted flash strobes-- "horseapples," he muttered to himself. "The magic crystals they're using for flashbulbs must be illusion-penetrating.(8)" He sat back and thought quickly. "Okay, Nyx, you need to go to the bathroom."
"No I don't," Nyx said, puzzled. What a crazy time to---
"Yes you do." Shining motioned with his hoof for her to come out.
"What? Ohh." Nyx hastily scooted out from under the table, Spike trailing behind. Shining Armor casually escorted her from the room, smiling idly and saying things like "little trip to the filly's room" to whoever they bumped into, ever the solicitous uncle... ever so coincidentally standing so that he blocked her from the view of the cameras and their flashing strobes. Between the tumult over Twilight's announcement (who had begun taking questions from the audience) and the lingering distraction of the colt's outburst, they made it out to the lobby unscathed.
All three of them breathed a sigh of relief as the doors swung shut behind them. "Now what?" Nyx asked.
"Now we drop you off in the royal chambers," Uncle Shining said. "Thank goodness there are no cameras out--whups."
Nyx looked over to see what it was. There was one other group out in the lobby at the moment; the movie theater bully and his family. The bully was getting one heck of an ear-bending by what looked to be half his extended family for causing a scene. The father, a balding, broad shouldered pony who looked rather like somepony who'd had far too much put on his shoulders in far too short a time, had seen the consort prince and his niece and was leading his little group their way, his son's ear in his teeth. The colt squawked, but stumbled along after.
"Oh dear stay calm," Shining Armor muttered to Spike and Nyx under his breath. "Yes, can I help you?" he said, smiling at the approaching ponies.
The group reached them. The father spat out his son's ear and made a cursory bow to the consort prince. "Your majesty, we just wanted to apologize sincerely for the scene," he said. "My boy has gotten into these dreadful "moving picture horrors" things that are all the rage today, and I'm afraid it's made him--- excitable and addled--"
"I am not!"
A wrinkled mare, presumably the family matriarch, cuffed him upside the ear. "Hush up, boy," she said.
"--Ahem. Anyway, we do apologize," the father finished awkwardly.
"Ah well, yes... foals," Shining Armor said casually.
"Indeed. ... Come on, Gregory(9), step up and apologize to the young lady," the father barked.
The boy's face was stormy, but when he clapped eyes on Nyx it immediately became fearful. "I won't! I saw what I saw. She's a vampony. She's the one I told you about from before! From the theater!"
"Enough of that nonsense, Gregory," his mother said wearily.
"It's the truth! She's just wearing a magic disguise!" He pointed at her dramatically, eyes comically wide, leaning back into his mother so hard he pushed her back a step. "She's EVIL!!!"
The contrast between the colt's wild eyed theatrics and the tiny white filly, bedecked in a frilly little dress, simply standing there looking befuddled was too much. Shining Armor had to choke back a laugh. "They all look that way at that age, don't they, kid," he said with a grin. Nyx shot him a scrunch-nosed glare. He chuckled and winked. "Don't worry, kid, you'll be a lot more interested in each other in a few years--"
"Ewww," Nyx said, looking at the colt with scorn.
Gregory looked wildly at all the chuckling adults around him. "Are you all STUPID? Why doesn't anyone believe me?? She's just wearing a magic disguise!" His eye lit on Nyx's hairband. "Here, I bet it's this hairband that does it--" He jumped forward and tried to yank the hairband out of Nyx's mane.
Nyx squealed and struggled, wrestling with the much bigger and more aggressive colt. The adults present shouted out in shock, but before anypony or dragon could move to intervene--
The colt went tumbling backward and landed on his back with a thud. He clutched his nose with his forehooves and started up an almighty howl. Everyone present gaped in astonishment. The most astonished had to be Nyx herself; she sat on her rump on the floor, gaping at her hoof. "I... I didn't mean to--"
"And I think that's enough for one evening," Uncle Shining sighed. "Come on Nyx."
Gregory's father facehooved as his wife and mother picked up the howling colt. "Take him out to the carriage, honey," he growled over his shoulder. He turned an apologetic face to Shining Armor. "Your Majesty, words cannot express--"
Shining Armor gave him a level gaze. "Then maybe actions would speak louder," he said, the tiniest bit of acid in his tone. "Your colt is obviously used to lifting his hoof to those smaller and weaker than himself. Maybe you should pay more attention to how you're raising him, if you don't want to offend. Nyx, Spike, come along." Spike helped Nyx wobble to her feet. He made a point of scowling and snorting smoke at the harried courtier as they trotted off after the consort prince.
Nyx trotted meekly after Uncle Shining, rattled by what happened. She'd never been physically attacked by a colt before. She'd never hit another foal before, either. Her insides were quivering; her ice cream dessert felt like it was sitting in her gut in a rock-hard icy ball.
Shining didn't say anything till they had rounded a couple of corners, and the noise the bloody-nosed colt was raising had finally faded out. "Nice jab," he murmured, just loud enough for Spike and Nyx to hear. "Your mother teach you that?"
Spike snorted. Nyx blushed, then dimpled briefly. "N-no," she said. "Really, it-- it just happened--!"
"Nothing he didn't have coming," Uncle Shining said. He sobered. "Life lesson, here; don't ever let a colt or stallion mistreat you like that. If they try, you pop 'em in the nose, just like that. Got it?" Subdued, Nyx nodded.
"This is gonna cause trouble, innit?" Spike muttered.
Shining Armor sighed and shrugged, then grinned. "One thing I've learned with this gig, is that there's always trouble. Usually of the small, petty and stupid kind, and you never know what it's going to be about. So no sense in worrying about it in advance."
"I can get behind that," Spike said, giving Shining Armor a thumbs-up.
"For now," Shining Armor said, "I think we've earned the right to cower in our rooms hiding from the press for the rest of the day. Let's get back to our rooms before Nyx has to punch out anyone else."
"Heyyy," Nyx whined. Shining just chuckled and mussed her mane.
They picked up the pace a little bit, the mood lifting.
It was the next day before everything came a-cropper.
It was a thankfully uneventful day. The Royal Court and most of the rest of the government was closed for the weekend, so the royal family-- niece, sister in law and dragon adoptee included-- had been puttering about in cheerfully enforced idleness.
Much of the previous evening had been spent with a certain uncle, niece, and number one assistant explaining their sudden departure at the dinner last night--- and subsequently interrogated about the events at a certain movie theater and a certain dust-up the night before. Both uncle and niece had gotten off with a light scolding for not telling the rest of the family about such things, much to their relief. Nopony had been happy about what had happened, but everypony agreed that it there was no sense in borrowing trouble, so they had greeted the following day with a lighter mood.
Uncle Shining was enjoying some light reading, and Aunt Cadence had decided to try her hoof at, of all things, baking cookies (a plan heartily approved by Spike, Peewee and Nyx.) Twilight, ever the workaholic, had taken a quick trip to the library to retrieve some more paperwork.
As for Nyx, her close shave the night before had left her feeling a bit giddy, and was currently having a fit of the sillies. She was skulking around with a blanket thrown over her like a cowl, pretending to be "Evil-Linda, Evil Mistress of Eviliality" and going about making "Evil" pronouncements at everyone. It was all Shining Armor and Cadence could do to keep from cracking up.
Nyx hunched her way into the drawing room like an enormous patchwork slug and crept up to Uncle Shining's chair. "Hurr hurr hurr," she said, making her voice raspy and croaky as the frog-creature from the movie they'd seen. "I am here, ! Evil-Linda, Evil Mistress of Eviliality. I'm, I'm so eeeeeevil..."
"You are, are you," Shining said, turning a page.
"Yesss. I'm so evil I... I freak myself out! That's how evil I am."
"Duly noted." Shining bit the inside of his cheek.
"I shall now stand here and be EVIL at you!" She waved her hooves at her uncle. "Evil evil evil evil!"
There was a 'ding' from the kitchen. "Well you might want to spread some of the evil over in the direction of the kitchen," he noted. "Sounds like the first batch of cookies are done."
"Ooo." With that bit of news, "Evil-Linda" dropped to the floor and hunched her way to the kitchen, muttering "evil evil evil" as she went. Shining Armor chuckled and went back to his book.
Cadence had just set the next tray of cookies in the oven to bake when she found herself joined in the kitchen by a mobile mound of patchwork quilt. "It is I, Evil-Linda!" the mound announced, waving two little black hooves at her. "Mistress of Eviliality!"
"Would Evil-Linda care to try some chocolate chip cookies?" Cadence tittered.
The blanket mound thought it over. "It depends. Are they eeeeeeeevil cookies?"
"Well, if you eat too many you'll get a tummyache," Cadence said.
"Works for me," 'Evil Linda' said. She hopped up into a chair at the kitchen table. Cadence poured the sinister blanket a glass of milk and set out two warm cookies on a plate. "Haha," Evil-Linda croaked. "I shall eat this one now...." she held up one cookie. "And this one later..."
"Why?" Cadence asked.
"To spoil my dinner. Because I'm eviiiiil, hahahah!" One cookie disappeared under the hood of the patchwork cowl, accompanied by loud munching noises. "Oh, wow, these are good, Aunt Cadence!" Nyx exclaimed in her normal voice.
"Why thank you--"
"Oh no!" 'Evil Linda' suddenly said.
"I'm Evil-Linda, Mistress of Eviliality! and this was a GOOD cookie!" 'Evil Linda' fell to the floor. "Oh no, oh no, what a world what a world, who would have thought my beautiful evilness could be destroyed by a good little cookie like you, I'm melting, I'm meelllllting.... blargh I'm dead." Nyx lay flat on the floor, tongue hanging out, while Aunt Cadence laughed so hard she could barely stand.
Spike came trundling in, Peewee perched on his head. "Hey, I smelled cookies baking," he said. "Could I maybe have--" he paused in the doorway and regarded the scene: Nyx sprawled on the floor, wrapped in a patchwork quilt, with all four hooves in the air and cookie crumbs on her face, Cadence over by the sink, splashing her face and trying to quiet a case of the hiccups with a glass of water. He regarded the pair with creased brows. "Should I just go back out and come back in when this makes sense?"
There was the sound of a door opening and closing. Nyx hopped to her hooves. "Mom's back!" She hastily scarfed the remains of her cookies and galloped for the drawing room. Cadence and Spike trotted along in her wake.
They caught up with her in the drawing room. Twilight was indeed back. She was looking unbelievably frazzled. "Hey, Twily, what's wrong?" Uncle Shining said, setting his book down.
Twilight sat down on the sofa and pulled off her saddlebags. One was stuffed full of the papers she'd gone after. The other was stuffed full of newspapers. "It looks like we didn't get away unscathed last night after all," she said wearily, flipping the first one open.
SPECIAL EDITION, the headline blared. Amid Crisis and Controversy, a New Royal Project. Shining and Cadence pored over the articles. Most were about the announcements from the night before, especially about the 'expedition' being planned to unearth the lost tomb. There was a lot of kerfluffle and wild speculation, coming down both pro and con. "I don't see what you're getting at, Twiley," Shining said, shrugging. "Sure, a lot of it's negative but nothing more than we expected..."
"Not the stories, Shiney," Twilight said. "The pictures. Look--" She flipped over a few pages: there was a double-page spread of photos taken at the dinner. Several of them were of Nyx.
A completely black-coated Nyx. She was in almost all of them, and more than a few focused entirely on her. Nyx nuzzling Twilight, Nyx scowling at the waitstaff and huddling over her gelato, Nyx waving at her friend... one quick-eyed photographer had managed to catch a snapshot of her yelling into the microphone with all her might. You could even see her little wings flaring as she leaned forward.
Shining Armor facehooved. "Of course. The disguise spell kept flickering whenever the flashbulbs went off, and the flashbulbs were only going off when--"
"When the cameraponies were taking a picture," Twilight finished. She nosed through the pages. "They're already speculating; Who is she? Why was she disguised? And when these papers make it back to Equestria..."
"People will start connecting the cute little black alicorn dots," Shining Armor muttered. "At lightning speed."
Nyx bit her lip and huddled into her mother's side. "I'm sorry.." she said.
"None of that," Twilight shushed her. "It's not your fault." She sighed. "Rarity was right. Honesty would have been the best policy, right from the start."(10) She looked at her brother and sister-in-law. "So what do we do now?"
"Only what we can do, I suppose," Princess Cadence said. "Take it as it comes."