“The Everfree?” Rarity asked, dubious. “Whatever she wants out of that dreadful place, she can have. Maybe living with the Timberwolves will improve her disposition.”
“Well, it’s… not that simple, Rarity,” Twilight said with some hesitation, not really sure how to explain that she was, in a way, responsible for the local creepy forest of doom that they’d all grown up terrified of.
“Is this about the Castle of the Two Sisters?” Rainbow Dash asked, bouncing on the edge of her seat. “Oh! Oh! Did the princesses leave some ancient magical research there that they deemed dangerous to use but too awesome to destroy?”
“That would be convenient, but no,” Twilight said. Looking around at all of her friends, sighed and decided to just bluntly tell them, “It’s where my missing alicorn powers are,” stunning all of her friends into silence.
Applejack was the first to recover. “Uh, would you care to explain that, sugarcube?”
Twilight was about to do so, but thought better of it and turned expectantly to Princess Celestia and Princess Luna instead. They weren’t quite primary sources, but they were as close as they were going to get.
When the sister princesses were done summarizing their discovery and subsequent study of the Everfree, Twilight was more uneasy than ever itching to go do something now that they had some idea what Sunset Shimmer was likely to be after. The responses from the rest of the table were a little more varied, though no less urgent.
Cadance was clutching her hooves together, eyes sparkling. “I have a sister!”
“I already became your sister when you married my brother!” Twilight shot back, not unhappy to be ambiguously closer to Cadance, but growing annoyed that this wasn’t being taken a little more seriously.
“Wait, my sister is your sister?” said Shining Armor to his wife, somewhat bemused and trying to work out whether he should be concerned about this or not.
It took a moment for the various reactions to die down, at which point Rainbow Dash voiced the question that was really on everypony’s minds. “So, what? This Sunset Shimmer mare wanted to be an alicorn and now she thinks she can just take Twilight’s magic instead? Is that even possible?”
That was the question, wasn’t it? Princess Celestia shook her head, to Twilight’s small relief. “I do not believe so. Luna and I studied the magics of the Everfree over the course of centuries, hoping that we might put them to rest or at least tame them, but we made little that could be called progress. We were younger and less experienced then, but I do not believe that Sunset will have any more success, if that is indeed the conclusion she came to from eavesdropping on us.”
“It may be supposition, but it is what we have to go on,” Luna surmised and Twilight agreed. “Given that she exiled herself after being denied ascension—”
“Which I cannot grant,” Princess Celestia interrupted, sending Princess Luna a scowl.
“…Yes, that,” Princess Luna said, brushing it off. “Given that, I imagine that the feasibility of it matters little to her. In fact, the idea that it is something that you failed at would likely only encourage her.”
“…Yes? Why wouldn’t it?” Twilight asked, giving everypony a little more insight into the mind of one of Princess Celestia’s students than she intended. Regardless, she carried on. “That’s how progress is made. Everything we do is something that hasn’t been done before—and on that note, I, uhh, think I would like to go back to my forest now? Because that really isn’t a risk that I’m comfortable taking when I have any other choice.”
Rarity gasped. “But you can’t! The Princess Summit—!”
Twilight rolled her eyes, thinking that this was a little more important than some made-up event, so she was understandably shocked when she saw Princess Celestia gently shaking her head.
“There is no need to panic, Twilight. Sunset isn’t going anywhere.”
Luna nodded along with this. “I have already made certain that none shall leave the city. All that is needed is for Cadance to make it official.”
“Yes, of course,” Cadance agreed, looking to Shining Armor.
“I’ll make sure it gets around,” he said, considering something before shaking his head. “Sorry, Twily. The best way to keep her contained is to shut down the trains. No unicorn is going to make it south through the snow and mountains on their own.”
“Compared to stowing away on a train, which ain’t exactly witchcraft,” Applejack said, finishing the thought.
Twilight wilted back in her seat. “That makes sense, but…”
Suddenly, Pinkie Pie was next to Twilight giving her a shoulder-hug. “Aw, cheer up, Twilight! Just you wait and see—the next few days are gonna be so full of parties that you’ll forget all about the nasty, treacherous mare that’s after your soul!”
Twilight’s ears flattened in distaste. “Pinkie, that’s not—”
“What kind of cake do you think I should bring to a search party?”
The next few days were not, precisely full of as many parties as Pinkie Pie had suggested. Even the search parties seemed a bit lacklustre to Twilight, though that might have just been sour grapes over the fact that she didn’t have the time to actually participate in them, nor did they turn up any sign of Princess Celestia’s wayward student.
Busy, on the other hoof, was a more than accurate descriptor. Once they had come to a reluctant consensus about Sunset Shimmer and the rest of the group had made their plans, the four princesses had to move on to the laundry list of items that they had actually come to discuss. Worse, Twilight actually felt like she was helping, which in turn made her feel guilty for not wanting to be there.
“No, that doesn’t work,” Twilight said, leaning over the table on her hooves with a look of concentration on her face. Finding what she was looking for, she pushed the small stack of papers over to Cadance. “Here, look—the materials for the stadium won’t start arriving until two weeks after that. There won’t be enough time.”
Cadance gaped, grabbing the paper and scanning down the list herself. “That’s not… Oh no, you’re right,” she said, finally seeing it for herself. Slumping forward onto the table, the paper began to drift off until Twilight caught it in her magic and made the stack neat again.
“I am sure that a visit from a princess can encourage them to have it ready sooner,” Luna suggested, presuming the matter settled.
Celestia had another suggestion, however. “The Hilltown Hotel representatives are refusing to work with crystal ponies, meaning they’re going to be short on labor and won’t be done with construction until the last minute. I’m sure that we could come to an arrangement with them for the materials they won’t be needing until after ours are available to replace them.”
That sparked something in Twilight’s memory and she went looking for something she knew was there while Cadance was expressing her discontent. “I don’t know…” she said, chewing her lip. “They’ve been rather unpleasant with us. If we can just get the materials sooner somehow, I’d rather work something out there than go hat-in-hoof to them asking for a favor.”
“Aha! Found it!” Twilight shouted. “Hilltown Hotels isn’t the only one receiving the kinds of materials we need before us. The Mareiott are handling VIP accommodation on-site and they can’t actually start their own construction until the stadium construction has started. There should be no problem getting them to release those to us, and they’re much closer to what we actually need anyway.”
“Will it be enough, though?” Cadance asked, taking the paper from Twilight and giving it a look for herself. It was a short list.
Twilight was confident, though. “We’ll have to shuffle things around and focus on one section before the rest, but we don’t have to make up the entire two week difference. It should be enough, barely.”
Cadance sighed and said, “I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with ‘barely.’ It makes me uneasy. See if you can find something else to give us a little more breathing room?”
Twilight considered that for a bit before she began shuffling through even more papers. “I think I know just the thing…”
And so it went. Eventually, they had the immediate concerns over the Equestria Games settled into something they could hand off to other ponies and moved on to other topics. Twilight felt like groaning when she saw that they also had things to do to prepare for the next Summer Sun Celebration, the refilling of Cloudsdale’s reservoir and so on, but these annual events largely ran themselves. Mostly they just covered what would be going on over the course of the next year and covered these subjects rapidly.
After a few days of this, Twilight not only empathized with Cadance’s level of exhaustion, but was well on her way to joining her, her only saving grace the fact that she was already used to long research projects far more than her fellow contemporary princess and double-pseudo-sister.
Unfortunately, research, planning and organization wasn’t all that she had to deal with.
“Now hold still,” Rarity instructed as she circled around Twilight searching for any flaw at all in her appearance. A moment later, her lips tightened a minute amount as she lit her horn and smoothed out a small section of Twilight’s coat that had gotten a little mussed up.
“Honestly, Rarity,” Twilight grumbled and asked, “Is this all really necessary?”
Rarity hmphed. “Your princesshood may have gotten you out of wearing a dress, my dear, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have to look your best. In this situation, you are the dress, and you must be absolutely perfect.”
“Are you… mad at me?” Twilight asked, a little bewildered by the idea.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Rarity asked with a certain cold sweetness. “Just because you of all ponies didn’t bring your crown of office with you to your inaugural Princess Summit isn’t any reason for me to be mad—and the fact that you didn’t even think to mention it until the Duke of Maretonia had arrived? A trifle, really.”
Twilight sighed, which just gave Rarity the opportunity to correct her posture. “I already apologized about that,” she reminded Rarity. “Besides, it isn’t as if I’d needed it before now. Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler if I just had the Element of Magic as my crown of office anyway?”
“Absolutely not!” Rarity said and was just about to go into great detail about how such a thing would erode the very foundation of meaning of such icons when Rainbow Dash burst into the room, followed shortly by the rest of their friends, causing her to wrinkle her nose at their just-in-from-the-city appearances.
“Ugh,” Rainbow Dash grunted, actually dropping onto one of the plush chairs that the guest suites had been furnished with rather than remain in the air. Kicking back, she draped herself over it like a sodden blanket and bemoaned, “Still no sign of that damn mare. No sightings, no disturbances—not even anyone that’s noticed any food missing. Either she’s really good at sneaking around for a princess’ pyromaniac student or she really did try to head south in the snow.”
“Ah wouldn’t say it’s impossible,” Applejack chimed in as she took off her characteristic stetson, set it down on a small end table and claimed another seat for herself. “Only I’d’ve expected some sign that she’d been stocking up. It ain't like a unicorn can just magic up food. That's pretty much a rule, right?”
Twilight gave it some thought. “I wouldn't want to say that it's completely impossible since it's magic, but in practical terms, yes. Creating food with magic is something that unicorns have wanted to be able to do for a very long time for—well—obvious reasons."
Applejack nodded at that, exuding an air of satisfaction and pride.
“Although… that doesn't mean that there aren't other possibilities,” Twilight added. “Transmutation can turn anything edible into something else that might be easier to stomach. There have been stories of unicorn sailors who survived at sea by transmuting the rigging of their ship into spaghetti. Since hemp is entirely edible, they were able to survive long enough to be found and rescued. Of course, that kind of transmutation is hardly easy to get right. Someone who hasn't done it before is just as likely to end up with something that is less palatable then what they started with.”
“Ah see…” Applejack said, scratching her chin. “So it might not be missing food we're looking for, but anything that even comes close, including things in storage that nopony would notice missing. That does make it a lot harder.”
“And that's just things that we should be practically concerned with,” Twilight said. “There's this one legend about a unicorn with a talent for fire who was so in tune with her special talent that she could survive just by burning things—or so the story goes.”
Applejack grunted. “They say similar things about old Jolly Appleseed, but Ah’m closer to thinking this mare is a real good sneak than believe she’s on the level of some sorta storybook legend. Unfortunately, it doesn't really matter which it is so long as we can't find her.”
“Maybe she doesn't want to be found?" Fluttershy suggested, then blushed. “I mean, of course she doesn't want to be found, but is that such a bad thing? I know the princess wants to talk to her old student, and she might have done some bad things, but if all she wants is to be left alone, then maybe we should let her.”
“But she doesn't want to just be left alone,” Twilight said, understanding the sentiment but annoyed at the dismissal all the same. “She wants to be an alicorn and she doesn't care who she hurts so long as she can get it.”
“But she can't get it,” Rainbow Dash said, throwing up her hooves. “I mean, I know that just saying that is tempting fate, but even if it's possible, she's not going to figure it out in a week before you can go deal with things yourself. Sometimes you’ve just gotta let a pony crash and burn before they’ll listen.”
Twilight sighed. “That might be true, but it wouldn't be responsible to just leave it to chance. If there's something that we can do about it, then we should.”
“And we are,” Applejack reassured her. “But patrolling the streets and asking the same grocer if he's seen anything for the third day in a row ain't really getting us anywhere. Ah ain’t saying we should stop, but if we don’t come up with something else soon, they’re gonna have to start running the train again, and then it’ll be all Equestria that we’ll have to look for her in.”
“Sorry,” Twilight apologized, shaking her head. “I’m just stressed and frustrated. I just wish that I could be out there helping.”
“You really don’t,” Rainbow Dash said, not having moved an inch during the entire conversation.
“And you are helping,” Fluttershy insisted. “You’re getting a lot done with the other princesses during the summit, aren’t you?”
Twilight’s ears flattened. “Well, yes, but that’s just…”
“…Just what’s actually important about being a princess?” Fluttershy suggested timidly. “You know that we won’t think any less of you if you never get the rest of your magic back, right? You’ll still be an alicorn.”
“Not much of one,” Twilight defended, almost as quietly as Fluttershy when she’s trying to get somepony’s attention.
“Horse apples!” Rainbow Dash yelled without moving from her spot. “You, uhh, might not be as awesome as—”
“Not helping, Dash” Applejack interrupted and tossed a banana from a nearby fruit bowl at her.
“I mean it,” Fluttershy said, determined to get through to Twilight but slightly weakly all the same. “Even if it actually mattered what magic you have instead of what you can do as a princess—even if Sunset Shimmer got her hooves on your pegasus and earth pony magic, she still won’t be an alicorn. You said so yourself—that’s a different magic entirely, and it’s one you already have.”
“I…” Twilight had to admit—Fluttershy did have a point. “That’s… Thanks, Fluttershy, that does help, actually.”
Twilight shuffled in place feeling awkward when she realized that there were two ponies who hadn’t spoken up for quite some time.
The first was Pinkie Pie, who hadn’t even made it to a chair and had just fallen over onto her front on the crystal floor like a successfully tired-out foal.
The other was Rarity, who Twilight had to turn around to get a look at. The mare in question was just standing there, manebrush gripped tight in her magic… seething with malice.
“It is less than half an hour until the six of us are to have dinner with the duke of Maretonia!” she screeched, scaring Rainbow Dash out of her seat and onto the floor and continuing to berate the others for everything from being ‘sweaty piles of filth’ to their lack of a perfectly-styled coiffure. Out of all of them, only Twilight was spared for already having spent the last hour under Rarity’s tender ministrations.
Twilight blinked, then looked again.
And also Fluttershy, whose mane and coat apparently looked just as perfectly brushed as they had that morning.