Princess Celestia had returned to Canterlot.
And she was relieved to see it in one piece.
Private Flash Sentry of the Royal Guard had been too frantic and overexcited to explain anything other than ‘We kicked flank’ and she needed to get the whole story.
The first thing she wanted to do was see how her niece had handled running the place.
To say she was surprised when she saw Jet Set and Upper Crust sat, quite uncomfortably, on the Royal Throne would be an understatement. Upon noticing her, the two noble ponies showed similar surprise mixed with some amount of fear as they squeezed free of the throne and abased themselves.
“Your highness, your magnificence, we are...glad to see you in such good health” Jet Set flattered.
“We were informed of how you so valiantly prevented devastation at Fillydelphia” Upper Crust fawned
“Bittsburgh” Celestia corrected them, her tone unfriendly.
“Exactly” The couple gave her a sycophantic smile “Her ladyship has excelled herself upon the throne but, poor dear, she felt very tired a few hours ago and asked us to keep order while she...recuperated, as it were”
“Purely temporarily, of course”
“Oh...I see” Celestia glanced at the massive portrait of the two courtiers, in the process of being hung up on the palace wall by their servants who were shifting uncomfortably under her gaze.
“Oh, that old thing?” Upper Crust blurted out “Oh that...that...all a misunderstanding...You see, we ordered a portrait done a few days ago, just arrived for us”
“Th-they sent it here when they found out we were filling in for Lady Cadence” Jet Set chuckled nervously, mopping his brow “We...we were just leaving it here for the moment...we were going to send it to...to...toooooo...er...”
“Maison Du Pompé, perhaps?” Celestia suggested meaningfully.
“Yes, yes, of course. Back home at Maison Du Pompé” Upper Crust clucked “You...you didn’t think we were going to hang it in the palace without...without your royal permission, did you?” She laughed half-heartedly “The idea!”
“Preposterous” Jet Set agreed “Just a...just a momentary convenience. We’ll...we’ll have it moved at once now that...now that her highness has returned”
The servants lugging the great portrait grumbled as they left the way they’d come.
“Well thank you for your time and effort, Marquis Jet Set and Marchioness Upper Crust” Celestia smiled “But I believe you’ve done enough for one day and I shall wish to return to my royal seat. You’ll want to be heading home too, I trust”
“Oh very much so, your highness, thank you”
“We’re so glad you’ve returned, your highness”
The two left staring at the floor, something they did not do often.
Celestia gave a deep sigh as she made her way to Cadence’s chambers.
Flash Sentry and Sunset Shimmer watched her leave before the headstrong unicorn turned to the guard.
“You know, Timber Spruce told me what happened”
“Er...” Flash paled “What...exactly...did he say?”
“He said you helped take down a perp and rescue Mr Fancy Pants”
“Uh, yeah...” The pegasus brushed the back of his mane with his hoof “Yeah, it...wasn’t easy. I’m glad Timber was impressed”
“He also said you look damn good in a nurse’s outfit”
“Oh, he’s a dead pony!”
“It’s okay, nursie, I don’t mind” Sunset chuckled, sidling up to him playfully “It’s something we have in common”
The young alicorn lay on her bed, accompanied by a bandage-swathed Sergeant Shining Armour, who was sitting patiently beside her along with a young lavender unicorn filly with a pink and indigo mane.
Upon seeing the Princess, the little unicorn dashed into her forelegs, smiling brightly.
“Princess Celestia!” she squealed.
Smiling in a motherly fashion, Celestia knelt down and nuzzled the young one.
“Hello my dear little Twilight, how have you been?”
“I’ve been fine! Shining and Cadey were telling me what happened while you were gone!” She hopped about excitedly “They fought off an army of really scary-looking ponies! With illegal weapons! That’s to say the scary ponies had weapons, not Shiny and Cadey! They weren’t using illegal weapons ‘cause...that’d be illegal” She caught her breath and regained her senses.
Celestia gave a gentle lilt of laughter.
“I’m glad you’ve been entertained, my little pony. Now you should be getting off to bed, it’s very late”
Twilight gave a small yawn.
“O-okay...” she toddled off, turning back once more “Can Cadey sing a lullaby later?” She shifted on her hooves “I know I’m a little old now but...when Shining said there were armed ponies in the streets, I...I got a little scared”
“Oh Twilight” Cadence hopped up and gave the little mare a gentle kiss on the forehead “Of course I’ll sing you a lullaby. I’ll just be a few minutes with the Princess. I’m sure Mr Smarty Pants can keep you safe”
Twilight Sparkle gave a giggle, waved them goodbye and left.
Shining Armour got to his hooves and saluted his princess.
“I’d like the full details on what transpired today, please Sergeant”
“Yes, your highness” Shining Armour spoke in a military tone “Her ladyship, Mi Amore Cadenza, assumed regency under your wishes while you were providing aid to Bittsburgh’s Industrial District. She was going to bring the Royal Council to the palace to discuss allegations of corruption referring to the Lord Magistrate Nitpick. The members were asked to bring documents relating to this matter to the palace but, owing to the congested traffic, only Chairstallion Fancy Pants and Councillor Earl Grey made it to the Royal Council and Earl Grey had to leave for hospital at the wish of his wife, Lady Crochet Doily, after learning his sons, Pokey Pierce, Perry Pace and Ponet Pierre, had been involved in an archery accident that left them hospitalised”
“I’ve heard all this, what happened after that?” Celestia said bluntly.
Shining Armour cleared his throat and continued.
“From what we’ve gathered, your highness, the Royal Council House was gassed in order to incapacitate the Chairstallion. It’s believed he was still physically assaulted before his abduction. The folder containing the necessary documents was trip-wired with explosives that went off at around o’ seven-hundred, today”
“And what did you do?”
“Well, it’s not so much what I did, your highness. You see...her ladyship...” He gave Cadence a flustered glance “grew concerned when the Chairstallion did not appear and elected to set out a search. Not long afterwards, Private Stumbler had been ordered to...infiltrate...local gangs on the outskirts of Canterlot, who’d been gathering in a large group for purposes unknown”
In truth, Stumbler had simply wandered into the group absent-mindedly and hastily claimed he was one of them but the Sergeant felt it best to omit that detail
“When informed that a one Sir Cumbersome Clout of Loutly Towers, had been the one who had gathered them, Lady Cadence suspected Sir Cumbersome’s ally, Lord Nitpick, to be responsible. We questioned Nitpick’s lawyer, Mr Earwax, who’d been arrested the day before. He seemed fairly willing to talk when it was clear to him that he would not receive any help from the Lord Magistrate and confirmed Lady Cadence’s suspicions. We had, admittedly, gotten our facts mixed somewhat. We believed Nitpick had abducted the Chairstallion and was going after his political opponents. While ponies in his employment were indeed sent after Councillor Earl Grey, Prince Blueblood, Mister Hoity Toity and Miss Photo Finish, Lord Nitpick himself was heading by train to Ponyville where he believed Miss Fleur de Lis, a mare with supposedly intimate relations with the Chairstallion, was staying while Sir Cumbersome was intent on looting and burning Briefly Manor, the Chairstallion’s family residence”
Celestia’s brow furrowed.
“Such a vindictive, spiteful act. I trust he was stopped”
Shining gave a small chuckle.
“To be perfectly honest, your highness, their plan was very poorly thought out. I don’t know whether Lord Nitpick truly believed Fleur was at Ponyville after she appeared in person at the modelling shoot at Briefly Manor the day before or whether he was simply intent on making an example. His family household, Invitro Manor, has a certain enmity towards the town and he may have been hoping to kill two birds with one stone. But regardless, the residents of Ponyville...took exception to his intentions. The Mayor sent me a message a couple of hours ago saying that Nitpick and his associates had been apprehended and were on route to Canterlot by train to be delivered to her highness. Lady Cadence had, however, sent the Royal Guard, led by Sergeant Orion of the 2nd Platoon, to Briefly Manor. He informed us that the household had seen fit to rigidly defend the estate and Sir Cumbersome Clout and those beside him were swiftly repelled, running into the awaiting guard”
“I shall deal with them personally” Celestia growled.
“There’s more, your highness. I sent my platoon in search of the ponies her ladyship was certain that Nitpick had targeted, I myself sought after Fleur de Lis at her flat but found her missing but the room showed no signs of disarray. I discovered, on her orb, that she was planning on meeting the Chairstallion outside the Royal Council House. When I informed her Ladyship, her friend, Miss Carcassonne, went immediately to the Council House while we relayed orders to the guard. Upon hearing of the explosion, her ladyship mustered the remaining troops and headed, with all haste, to the site...Your highness”
He glanced around, as if concerned the attack was still going on.
“I do not believe the attack on the Council House was Nitpick’s doing. The abduction of Fancy Pants and the destruction of the archives were far too coordinated. An entire squad of mercenaries, dozens strong, were able to disguise themselves as roadwork ponies, divert all traffic from the road the Council worked on, blow up the building and pick off any survivors without anypony but Lady Cadence knowing. It is my firm belief these ponies were professionals, quite unlike the small-time thugs the Lord Magistrate relied on. They were well-trained in combat and strategy and, dare I say it, they showed great amounts of loyalty. During their retreat, they were set on getting everypony among them out of there in one piece, along with their weapons. Their leader, who we’re searching the criminal database for, even bided time for his ponies to escape by challenging Lieutenants Flitter and Cloud Chaser to a two-on-one duel. Though greatly outmatched, he fought until his mercenaries had left Canterlot, then escaped using flash-bang grenades. We suffered no fatalities but we’ve many injured”
“Just so long as they are no longer in the city...You believe the two events aren’t connected?” Celestia asked, tilting her head.
"It’s not that, your highness. They are connected, we’re sure of it. But I believe Nitpick was working with somepony, somepony far more powerful and dangerous than he could ever dream of being”
“I suspect the Countess” Cadence piped up.
“I wouldn’t think so” Celestia stated, pursing her lips “Countess Magnifying Glass is smarter than her husband but only marginally and a lot less cautious”
“Even so, she could well have been involved” Cadence urged her aunt.
“We cannot accuse anypony without proof”
“Uh...can I chip in here?” The three ponies turned to Flash Sentry, who was holding up his hoof nervously.
“Private...” Shining said at length “Is that lipstick?”
“Huh? Oh this?” The orange pegasus hastily rubbed his cheek. “Nonono...the...the perp caught me in the face when we brought him in”
“I thought he was unconscious?”
“Yeah, er...reflex. Look, the thing is, there might be more to it that just this event” He stood up and spoke in a serious manner “Before we stepped in, Earl Grey’s would-be-assassin, a pegasus named Arquebus, told Earl Grey he’d let the Lord Magistrate down and disobeyed orders. Arquebus had been arrested by the guard three days earlier for assaulting Prince Blueblood, presumably on Nitpick’s orders. He said nothing when we questioned him so we hid a tracking crystal in his belt. He was ordered to kill Earl Grey at the hospital but the traffic impeded him so we...disguised ourselves and waited. He said something about ‘Keeping an eye on him’. At first, I thought he meant Fancy’s lead in the polls but me and Timber were talking earlier. It didn’t make sense. Earl Grey was the one who put Fancy in the polls in the first place. And if he was impeded in the traffic then Arquebus couldn’t have been part of the fake road-works scheme. I think there’s more to it than that and when I asked Earl Grey about it, he said he’d have something he’d need to get off his chest” He stepped to the side to reveal the elderly unicorn standing before them with a solemn expression.
“Your highness,” he knelt “I fear I must confess a terrible injustice”
There was a pause.
“Speak” Princess Celestia’s tone was unemotional.
“It was many years ago, your highness...fourteen to be exact”
“Pantaloon and Petticoat...” Cadence whispered.
“I had nothing to do with the murder itself...but I had something to do with its cover-up” Earl Grey cleared his throat, blinked several times and did his best to continue “You may remember I led and financed the investigation. I was close...closer than I was letting on. Until one day when I went to check my desk and I found...the good Countess standing outside my office. Now, she’d always despised me, she didn’t mind showing it. We were not friends or even anything friendlier than enemies. I had put a stop to many of her more controversial acts and before their deaths, I was aiding Chairmare Petticoat and her husband in proving Count Stained Glass sane and safe, which would have greatly diminished Magnifying Glass’s chances for comfortable inheritance. And she and her husband had always given me a look, like that of a wolf towards a bear. Hostility, suspicion, but most of all a sense of jealousy...and some small amount of fear. But that day there was no fear. Not in her. The way she looked she was a wolf...and I was a weasel, to be chased away if I approached and eaten if she saw fit. We passed each other without a word and I looked in my desk” He gulped “There was a knife, a simple thing but meant for warfare, a proper soldier’s tool. It was sticking upright in my desk drawer, stuck through a photo of my family, the names and numbers of my son’s fraternity rooms at the School for Gifted Unicorns, a shopping list containing some of the foods I know my wife is partial to...and a note, scrawled in untidy handwriting I did not recognise. And when I looked back up...the Countess was gone...And the next day, so were the knife and the notes”
“What was on the note?” Celestia asked, her tone significantly more sympathetic.
Earl Grey took a deep breath and answered.
“No Interference...I shall remember those words until my last day in this world” He shivered “But you see, your highness, I had seen Nitpick too that day before and after getting that note and his look was the look he’d always given me. The fear was there. And only the day after did he start seeing me as less a bear and more a weasel”
“You mean to say...” Celestia said, her eyebrows rising “She made the threat...not Nitpick?”
“She was involved!” Cadence exclaimed.
“I would stake the honour of my great ancestor, Twinings the Tactician, upon it” Earl Grey declared “Your highness...I cannot ignore what I have done...After receiving that letter, I called off the investigation, increased royal guard influence in the area where Pantaloon and Petticoat were found dead...and tried to forget...But every day I went into office, I saw how Nitpick looked at me and knew that the threat was still there, hanging over me...”
“But then why did you support Fancy Pants in the polls?” Shining asked.
“Spur of the moment, really. I’d taken the lad in, taught him everything his father and I had been taught, watched him grow. After Carcassonne failed, I couldn’t bear to see Nitpick take charge of the city. I could not be certain how long it would take before he decided he no longer needed me or my family. There would be blood in the streets, I knew it...so I acted. A day afterwards, I got a visit from Arquebus, relaying orders from his master. Nitpick wanted to know exactly what Fancy Pants was up to and prevent any chance of him stumbling upon the documents he was so keen to get rid of. He couldn’t destroy them. You’d need signed and reviewed permission to do so and that would lead to hooves pointed. I would have nothing to hide, he knew it. Nitpick is good at one thing, covering his tracks. But the Countess is the one behind this, there can be no doubt”
“Very well” Celestia said, bowing her head “Earl Grey...while what you did was wrong, nopony could fault your reasons. It is obvious Nitpick was unafraid to kill your family and any other who chanced upon what you knew...and even then you managed to do good by nominating Fancy Pants”
“But...I have caused Fancy Pants fourteen years of grief. Knowing his parents died in agony and never knowing who was responsible! And my support for him practically caused the chaos that unfolded today!” Earl spluttered.
“Earl...you have had the same threat of terrible loss hanging over you for the fourteen years Fancy was able to recover from his own, partly thanks to your help. That’s punishment I would not envy and worse than any I could think of...”
She remembered the last few weeks before the rise of Nightmare Moon, seeing her sister become so cold and distant, just waiting to snap. A sword above her head, a weight upon her shoulders, crushing her.
She would not envy it at all.
“Go and see your wife and sons, Earl. However way you choose to make amends will be of your own decision”
Earl Grey stared a moment, caught his breath, bowed and left.
There was a pause.
“Do you think I made the right choice?” Celestia said at last to Cadence and Shining.
“He’s been through enough” Shining said “I know I probably would’ve done the same if they came after my family”
“Indeed” The Princess turned “You have done very well, my little ponies, and you deserve your rest. I have received the documents retrieved from the Council House and will review them immediately”
“Thanks, auntie” Cadence chirped before following Shining Armour to the room of her favourite little filly in Canterlot.
With a weighty sigh, Princess Celestia entered her chamber.
Overall, she’d done a fine days work.
The moon shone bright through the balcony.
‘One day’ she thought, a bitter tear rolling down her cheek.
She paced over to the chair where the folder from the Council Archives had been placed.
She’d need to examine these. Accusations or defences of powerful ponies would cause chaos if she wasn’t able to add her own opinion.
And she’d need to look for that messenger. She had quite a few things she needed to ask him.
Opening the folder, the first items she found were a collection of deeds, receipts and bills. Each one was stamped with the Glass family seal.
She gave them a quick skim then paused.
She looked them over again, slowly and clearly.
The sheets fell limply to the ground as she stood wide-eyed and open-mouthed, pale and shaking from horn to hoof.
A few faint words managed to free themselves from her quivering lips.
Countess Magnifying Glass looked out the window, gazing at the smoke and flames emanating from the smouldering remains of the Royal Council Chambers with a victorious smirk, swilling her whisky inside its glass.
Good-bye Carcassonne, Fine Line, Jet Set and all those other meddling bureaucrats and campaigners.
She took a sip of her whisky.
She’d be saying good-bye to an awful of ponies she’d never liked. And hello to a chance for some real power.
Fancy Pants would be found dead, mutilated to a level beyond speaking of, barely recognisable.
Fleur de Lis, the papers would say, committed the act in a paranoid frenzy, harming herself as she did her lover, as her shocking wounds indicated before committing suicide by...Well that was up to Nitpick, really. It would be cruel to deny him that justice.
The terrible murder-suicide would take place at Briefly Manor which would be found burned to the ground with everypony in it come morning. It was like Fleur de Lis to be showy, in life and in death.
Meanwhile, road-works across the city caused terrible congestion and chaos on the streets, numerous ponies being victims of traffic collisions, injured or killed walking or driving, the most prominent being the well-known stallions, Prince Blueblood and Hoity Toity. Such horrific injuries, there was no way to save them.
Worse still, the road-works inadvertently caused multiple gas leaks in several areas of Canterlot, causing the Royal Council Halls, the hospital and the set of Photo Finish to tragically go up in flames with few if any survivors and absolutely no witnesses to any other cause of the attacks.
And outside of Canterlot, largely unnoticed in the mayhem, the normally calm and peaceful town of Ponyville would be subjected to a raid from ponies or creatures unknown. Many casualties, among them the Mayor, the Judge, the ice-cream ponies, the bakers, the nurses, the games inspector, most of the town council and their immediate families.
The local mail-mare and her family would go missing.
Later she would turn up at Invitro Manor, a completely different mare.
Nothing would ever be mentioned of any husband or foal she may or may not have had.
Oh it would be terrible for the Princess, she did not doubt it. Perhaps enough to truly push her over the edge. Her sister had cracked just under a hundred years ago. In for a bit, in for a diamond. Alicorns were always so unreliable. She thought of the mural on the door to the manor. Once she was gone...then things would really look promising.
‘I hope you live long enough to watch, daddy-dearest’ she thought, her icy-blue eyes gleaming ‘It’s not ‘Lucky’ Looking that becomes the Princess. No, no, it’s not the good daughter, the favourite, that excels. She’s rotting away in a haunted valley somewhere with that loutish upstart of a husband you liked so much while the daughter you always frowned on, lectured, reprimanded like a child...she goes on to-’
There was a bang on the door.
The Countess paused and waited.
There was another banging.
Why hadn’t the servants answered?
Fuming, the Countess made her way downstairs to the entrance hall and opened the door. She stared at the newcomer, her icy eyes wide as saucers.
“Wh-what...what happened to you?!” she exclaimed.
Cascadius was bruised and beaten all over and there were places on his body that weren’t supposed to bend the way they were bending.
Instinctively, she gave him the glass decanter and fumbled around for a glass, only to find he was drinking it straight from the bottle in heavy gulps. Throwing his head forward, the mercenary closed his eyes, coughed and found a seat by the fire, nursing his injuries.
“Cascadius...” Countess Magnifying Glass said, her triumphant vigour diminished completely “What happened?”
The stallion paused and spoke without looking at her.
“Do you want the long version or the short version?”
He took a breath and answered.
“Wh...What was the short version?”
“I...I don’t follow. Speak sense!”
Cascadius took a breath and another gulp of whisky before explaining.
“Your husband and his associates were thwarted at every turn and my mercenaries came under attack from Lady Cadence and the Royal Guard. We were unable to complete our objectives...and I was interrupted before I could finish my task...by one very ticked-off supermodel”
“Fine but it’s all taken care of, correct”
“Incorrect...Very incorrect” Cascadius cleared his throat “Everypony is alive”
“Wh-wh-WHAT?!” the Countess’s eyes bulged in their sockets “You...you mean Fancy Pants is still alive?!”
"Yes. Everypony is alive, milady”
“What, Fleur de Lis?”
“Everypony is alive, milady”
“They’re all alive. Everypony is alive, milady”
“Blueblood isn’t, is he?”
“Everypony is alive, milady” Cascadius was failing to get his point across.
“...Not Earl Grey!”
“Ploughing hay, yes! Earl Grey, everypony! Everypony is alive, milady!”
“Mayor Merry Weather?! Tell me she’s not alive!”
“She’s alive, milady! Everypony is alive! Everypony – is – alive – my – lady!” Cascadius snapped, thoroughly exasperated.
“Wait...” The Countess blinked, holding up one hoof “Are you trying to tell me everypony is alive?”
“You don’t have any more whisky do you?”
The Countess began stammering, spluttering and gasping for air as Cascadius leaned forward in front of the fire.
“You...you mean you failed?!”
“We acted too soon. We’ll need to think it through a little more-”
“SHUT UP!” She screamed, shivering with fury, her eyes sunken, her lips dripping with spittle “YOU WERE MEANT TO KILL THEM! ALL OF THEM! YOU’RE MEANT TO BE EQUESTRIA’S BEST ASSASSIN! WHAT SORT OF KILLER LEAVES EVERYPONY ALIVE! THIS IS PATHETIC! I CAN’T RELY ON ANYPONY!”
“Calm yourself, milady, this is a minor setback”
“Minor?! MINOR?!?! YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT YOU USELESS, SPINELESS, BRAIN-DEAD, INCOMPETENT, BUCKING PLOT!!!”
She clutched the poker in her hooves, too lost in rage to focus on magic and swung it at the stallion with full force.
She felt it collide with something and opened her eyes.
Cascasius had lifted one of his hooves in front of his cheek.
The poker had slammed into it and bent round slightly from the impact.
Slowly, his hoof slid round the metal rod and snatched it from her grasp, passing it to his other hoof and dropping it nonchalantly in the corner of the room.
She took a step back as Cascadius rose from his chair without turning his head toward her, his expression showing little more than mild disappointment.
Like a rotating machine, he turned and looked her in the eye.
His voice was unnaturally tranquil.
“I feel like you don’t appreciate me”
His hoof shot out like a pouncing wolf, grabbing the countess by the throat and holding her face inches from the roaring orange flames rising and flickering in the fireplace.
“Argh-what-wha-what are you doing?!” the Countess spluttered, coughing and spitting out smoke and sparks “Stop! Stop you madpony! I’ll have you-”
“Shhh” Somehow Cascadius’s whisper was heard over Magnifying Glass’s screams as he leaned forward, his face glowing in the fire, and spoke in his tranquil tone.
“Don’t talk...just listen very carefully. I...have followed your orders to the letter...To the letter” he repeated “If this plan of yours did not work...even though it was carried out exactly as you wanted it...then who do you think is at fault here?”
“I said no talking” He’d barely raised his voice yet she shut up immediately as he let him continue, trying hard to keep her face and mane out of the fires.
“I have given you nothing but my best advice. Remain calm, act with caution, move carefully, plan ahead, no grand theatrics and learn to control your temper...At no point, through any of this, did you choose to act on that advice. You have left your plans in the hooves of absolute idiots, and while acknowledging and rebuking their idiocy, you insisted on relying on them regardless. You constantly complicated and dragged out tasks that could have been accomplished with subtlety and efficiency purely to satisfy your own spite. Lastly, you acted entirely on your own sense of personal vendetta, rather than any semblance of necessity or responsibility...I have seen some pretty terrible plans and the ponies who made them. Hay, I once worked for a paranoid megalomaniac who honestly considered hopscotch the pinnacle of strategy” He gritted his teeth and growled out the side of his mouth.
“It’s not strategy if you don’t have an opponent! It just...doesn’t work that way! Hopscotch is moving forward over lines! That’s - it! How delusional could anypony be?!”
“Wh-what are you talking about?!”
“Ah-ah-ah...no talking” Cascadius adjusted his grip. The coals were dangerously close to the Countess’s face. She could feel her makeup running down her cheeks from the heat, her eyes stung from the fumes.
“Sorry, lost my train of thought. Back again. As I was saying, I try not to mind too much when my employers or officers make mistakes. Mistakes makes us what we are, after all, nopony’s perfect...But what I take real issue with is when they try to shift the blame on others...namely the only one who’s got a shred of skill around here. That, my lady, ticks me off. So I’m going to make myself clear on this. I have more talent and knowledge and experience in eliminating one’s enemies than you can even comprehend so you should reflect on that whenever you so much as contemplate calling me incompetent...do you understand? You may talk now”
“...yes...” A pained squeak escaped the Countess’s lips as the last of her resolve burned away in the fireplace.
“Sorry, you’ll have to speak up”
“Yes!” she wailed as she was hauled out of the inferno. She crawled on her knees, shaking wildly as Cascadius gently brushed the soot from her shoulders and mane and offered a handkerchief for her face “You...you’re mad!”
“That’s never bothered you before”
“Shhhh...” That tranquil tone was consistent “Don’t worry. These disagreements are natural but I’m just glad we understand each other. It’s very simple” He sat down and put his hooves together under his chin “I’m in charge now. I make the plan, I pay the bills and I decide when, where, how and who we’ll strike. I hope you realise I’m not so quick to forget failure and please understand when I say I do not need you anywhere near as much you think I do so don’t embarrass yourself by trying to find leverage on me. Because you won’t. Because there isn’t any, not available to you anyway...Now” He got back to his hooves “I think my limbs are in better shape. I’ll be off covering your tracks. Then we can make plans in the morning”
‘Dash it all, Tom, me and Fleur are trying to sleep’
‘Tom, old chap, I’m sorry if we’ve been keeping you up but you’ve had your fun, surely’
‘I’m sorry, Fleur, he’s not usually this stubborn. Alright, Tom, have it your way, I’m coming down but that had better be the end of it!’
Grumbling, Fancy rose his head.
The gentlecolt gave a surprised yelp as he was grabbed by the shoulders by the sobbing mare of his affection.
“Fancy! You’re alright! Thank the alicorns! You’re alright! I was so worried!”
“Oomph! Careful now, Fleur!” Fancy wheezed “I just got up!”
“Sorry...sorry” The alabaster mare withdrew her hold and gently laid him back down again by the shoulders.
Fancy took a moment to take in his surroundings.
He was lying on a hospital bed with an excessiveness of teal around the room. He felt giddy just looking at it but soon realised that may have been due to something else.
There was a conducting crystal above his bedpost that glowed gold on and off, like that of one’s pulse. He felt warmth emitted from it that filled his body almost completely.
He pushed down the thin covers of the bed and glanced down.
His body was almost completely covered in bandages and grafts, deep red incisions sown up and covered across his chest, waist and limbs. Nothing had been severed from him or mutilated beyond repair but the sight still shocked him.
“Good grief” he burbled, still half-delirious “Where’s my jacket?”
“You have far more important concerns than your jacket, my errant colt” He looked up to see Aunt Bustle Bloomers standing on the other side of his bed. Tombola, Fuss Pot and Tinny Can were beside her and the on Fleur’s side were Earl Grey, Photo Finish and Carcassonne.
“Hello everypony” he murmured “Sorry I overslept”
“Oh Fancy, you can’t joke about this” Fleur was still weeping “You nearly died! That monster was cutting you open! He was torturing you to death”
As Fancy Pants glanced at his hoof, still stained with blood from a fresh graft, the memory of the bright red eyes staring through him flooded back as he regained his senses with a jolt.
“Did...” he panted “Did you catch him”
“Sadly no, but I wouldn’t count on seeing him again” Earl Grey said calmly “He fell from the top an eight storey high skyscraper. I doubt anypony could’ve survived”
“I won’t feel safe...until that horrible mask of his...is hung up in the evidence locker” Fancy struggled to get up “He killed them...My parents...He told me”
“What?” Fleur started.
“He told me...he was sorry...he told my parents...that I would be spared...before he killed them...”
The ponies around him hung their heads.
“We’ll find him, Fancy” Carcassonne said grimly “And if he survived, we’ll make him wish he hadn’t”
“I...when do you think I’ll be out?”
“The hospital staff said you will be able to walk by tomorrow afternoon, sir, but prudence and caution is advised” Tombola said “I’ve prepared your father’s walking stick if you needed it”
“I will want to speak with Princess Celestia as soon as I can get up”
“We can arrange for that, sir” Tombola got to his feet, putting his hat back on “Shall we leave you to recuperate, sir?”
“Fleur” Fancy managed to say “I have something...I’d quite like to tell her”
The reaction was mixed around the room. Tombola, Fuss Pot and Tinny Can had faces of excited glee, Bustle Bloomers and Earl Grey shook their heads but betrayed heartened smiles and Photo Finish and Carcassonne gave knowing smirks as the seven ponies left the room, leaving Fancy Pants and Fleur de Lis alone.
“Fleur...” he said, his voice a mellow drone “You saved my life...”
“I-I-I only...what happened was...” she gulped and took a deep breath “Yes”
“I looked for you in the archives. I found your monocle” She retrieved it from her coat pocket “I met Carcassonne and we got out of the Council Hall before it burned down. We were attacked and Lady Cadence and the guard came to help us. Cadence helped me work a spell to find you...She...” She stumbled with her words, determining how they sounded in her head “She said it was love magic...The fact that I loved you so much...led me to you”
“Do you believe that?” Fancy asked, his face expressionless.
Fleur thought a moment.
The alabaster mare leaned over and kissed the stallion on the lips.
“On whether you believe that”
Fancy blinked, gazed at the beautiful, kind and ever so strong mare in front of him and kissed her back, long and lovingly.
“I love you so much...Fleur de Lis”
“That was lovely” Shining Armour said as his little sister yawned, the soothing sensations of Cadence’s lullaby taking effect.
Little Twilight Sparkle snuggled up with Mr Smarty Pants and sighed, staring at her brother and foalsitter with her wide purple eyes.
“So at the end...what happened to Scorpan?”
“They say he’ll return when he finds a way to bring peace to his lands forever. Star-Swirl went with him so you know he’ll succeed”
“And where there any others who joined Scorpan?”
“Of course. Many centaurs and gargoyles saw the error of their ways and made peace with Equestria. No race in the world is ever always evil. There is good everywhere if you know how to find it”
“And what about Mimic?”
“She took over Star-Swirl’s role as Wizard of Wizards until the day her master returned”
“But if she becomes Wizard of Wizards, what happened to her brother, Gimic?”
Cadence thought a moment.
“He...became an explorer, teaching magic to the lesser known races across the world”
“Where is he now?”
“Er...in Fluffle Puff Land”
“What’s he doing there?”
“Dancing around with the Fluffle Puffs, I guess”
There was a pause.
“Okay” Twilight smiled and rested her in the pillow.
Shining knew his part in the ‘good-night’ ritual. He took the small photo of him, Twilight, his father Night Light and his mother Velvet and kissed the image of his parents.
“Good night mom, good night dad” he said and hoofed the photo over to Twilight who did the same before closing her eyes and letting the joy of dream-land find her.
Smiling, the alicorn and stallion left the room, closing the door gently behind them.
“Lovely song there, missus, if you don’t mind me saying”
A creaky old caretaker, dressed in the dark blue cloak and wide-brimmed hat of the School Mason Workers, stood smiling, resting on his broom.
“Thank you, sir” Cadence said tenderly “Now, Sergeant...Maybe you’ll need a little song to sleep too”
“Uh...I don’t know about th-whup!” Blushing furiously, Shining was held by a lock of his blue mane held in Cadence’s magenta magic as the two left the remainder of the night to their own fancies.
The caretaker watched them slowly disappear and smiled.
Propping the broom against the wall and hanging the cloak and hat upon it as if the wearer were resting, at least from a glance, he turned to the door.
‘It’s always the ones we love’
Retrieving several miniscule appliances and placing them in a rotating cog-work device, he carefully pressed it against the lock and, turning several dials this way and that, unlocked it.
Smiling, barely making any kind of sound, Cascadius opened the door to Twilight Sparkle’s bedroom and walked inside.