The radio crackled to life, waking me from my doze. I groaned, untucking a hoof from my blankets to turn down the volume. A thunk announced that I’d only succeeded in knocking it off my desk, and I groaned again, louder this time, in the hopes that it’d get the message and shut up already. It blared up at me from somewhere halfway beneath my cot, crooning a love song as I attempted to detangle myself from the wad of cotton sheets I’d managed to wrap myself in.
Gracelessly slouching to a sitting position, I stretched one forehoof, then its twin. I glanced towards my window, wincing as my horn sparked to life to open the blinds. A hazy orange glow greeted me, making me squint. A lovely deep hue of … wait, crap, the sun was setting already? I managed a glare towards the radio as I hastily stepped over it. Must have mistimed the alarm, it’d let me sleep later than I’d expected. I reached for the brush as the song wound to an end.
“And that was Sapphire Shores with ‘Goodnight, Sweet Summertime.’ You’re listening to the voice of Canterlot, Vinyl Scratch. Good evening, second-shifters! Got a bit of an update for those of you lucky enough to sleep for the full day.
“The weather’s going to be cool and comfortable tonight. We’ve got a bit of a storm situation to the East, but it looks like it’ll pass on by without impacting Canterlot, so no need to worry about shielding your home for rust. Going to be a full moon tonight, so if you see it between the cloud cover, make a wish for the Princess!”
I perked an ear towards the radio as I tried to detangle the worst of the knots out of my hair. I looked in the mirror and nodded to myself. It’d have to do. I was running late as it was. Scooping up my worn saddlebag, I pressed the panel next to my door. It opened with a creaking hiss as I stepped into the fiery light of early evening. From the speakers wired beneath the eaves of the roofs, I could just barely make out the voice of Vinyl Scratch.
“A few new artifacts were recovered from Old Equestria. Our scouts and scientists are working to make these pieces ready to view. Dear listeners,” said Vinyl, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial purr. “I’ve been told one of them is none other than a dragon skull! It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see one whole before they send it to the labs for study.”
I hummed in thought as I trotted faster through the winding streets. The dragons had risen against the Princess long ago, so the stories said. The Princess responded with what some would call a heroic action.
“Genocide,” she had confided to me one sleepless night. “It was genocide, and nothing I do will ever convince anypony it was an accident.”
Accident or not, it was done. They’d probably seen Equestria’s borders as “up for negotiation,” and personally, I couldn’t blame them. Much. It wasn’t like there were ponies living there to defend them. Canterlot was all we had left.
When Celestia had risen against her tyrant sister nearly a thousand years ago, the Elements had echoed her terrible wrath. The citizens of Canterlot had watched in horror and awe as the rest of Equestria was filled with a terrible, blinding light. The bravest among my ancestors had ventured out to look for survivors once the dust had settled, but there were none to be found. There weren’t even any corpses to weep over. Just empty, still lands that grew dense with weeds and wildlife as Celestia mourned.
There were hardly enough ponies to keep things running the way we were used to, until one night, the Princess had a vision. She’d build technology, create an empire that was strong enough to defend the last of Ponykind through artificial means. Not everypony was on board, but those who’d protested had mysteriously been silenced, nameless save a footnote in the annals of history.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out not to disagree with the Princess, especially when she was in one of her moods.
“The Museum’s also hosting a few new art pieces from local artists. Feel free to stop by and give them a look! My personal favorite’s this one based off of the ruins of Ponyville, and the trees grown around and through it. Wish I could’ve seen it in its heyday.”
In a way, my city was as beautiful as what Old Equestria was said to be. Colors danced through the gutters, oily rainbows reflecting the dormant hues of painted-over homes. Cobblestone gave way to copper plating in places near enough to public thoroughfares to be considered worth the cost. It gleamed in the evening light as I meandered through the emptying streets.
To be worth the cost, I thought as I wandered, trying to look purposeful enough that salesponies wouldn’t badger me with the last of their day’s wares, is quite subjective. Not even the sales pitches could quite drown out my uneven hooffalls.
Clop-CLANG, clop-CLANG, clop-CLANG
The cost had been war. The cost had been extermination of an entire species, a victory which one of my ancestors had been instrumental in securing. The bucking cost had been my foolish younger self deciding to reclaim that glory in a few griffon skirmishes, and coming back sans two legs and part of my horn. And I’d been one of the lucky few to return back with a face, or a still-beating heart. There was only so much technology could replace.
At least nopony gave mechanical limbs much of a second glance anymore. Not since General Cadenza had come back missing an eye and a wing. Someponies say that she’d lost even more, but nopony was going to walk up to the General herself and ask.
“Looks like that’s it for now. Listen, I’ll keep ya informed, if you keep on chugging along, alright, Canterlot? Next up, we have a personal favorite of mine, ‘Coppertune Blues’ by the Pony Three.” The speakers faded to a pleasant background noise, a soulful tune echoing along the metallic alleyways. I saluted a guard as I trotted past the outer walls of Canterlot Castle.
Dusk was creeping across the sky, washing the castle stone in a brilliant blood-red. It was mostly cloudless above the city, letting me just barely see the shadows of the pegasi lamplighters as they turned on the hovering lanterns. A few ponies were leaving their homes, taking to the streets for the start of their secondary jobs, mostly in manufacturing and training. There was still much to be done, even after the sun set.
I was lucky, in that my second shift took me to the castle. The Royal Engineer. It was less of a formal duty than the title lent itself to suggest, but I did what the Princess commanded, be it brainstorming new solutions to millenia-old problems or simply listening to one of the Royal Rants, as I liked to think of them.
Honestly, when I was offered the job, I thought General Cadenza was acting out of pity. But no, the General had insisted I take the position. A diamond in the rough, Cadenza had called me. Perhaps hard to get used to at first, but rare enough to be worth the polishing. Cadenza had given me one of her uncommon smiles when she’d said that, her crystal eye glimmering a deep, soothing blue. I thought it sounded like utter hogwash, but at the time I’d been too polite to say so.
I sighed as I leaned against one of the few remaining trees on the palace grounds, waiting for the inner-wall gate to open with a hiss. Cadenza was one of the few ponies who actually knew how close I truly was with the Princess. It wasn’t quite a forbidden love, but it was one that would raise quite a few more eyebrows in my direction than either of us desired.
The General didn’t necessarily approve of it, and made that perfectly clear, but she’d also said that our relationship was “sort-of mutual attraction, if one weren’t looking too closely at it,” and that was the closest thing to a compliment I was likely to hear from her, so I left it at that.
Back then, I would have called her a rather bitter soul, but these days, I felt “hard-ass” was far more appropriate. I trotted through the open gate, trying to keep the smirk off my face. Who’d Cadenza even think she was? Perhaps she was just jealous that I, lowly Rarity, got to spend time with the Princess while Cadenza had her nights full of training guards and entertaining royalty.
When I said it like that, I could almost convince myself that I’d gotten the better end of the deal. The Princess had been rather moody as of late, and as I passed into the inner sanctum of the castle, alight with balls of flame flickering in all hues, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d be getting into.
Nervously, I knocked on the throne room door, my brass hoof ringing against the steel. It had been years, years since I’d accepted this position, but the feeling of entertaining royalty still made my heart leap in my chest. I was lifting my hoof to knock again when the door lit with a gentle blue glow. The magic lept out to zap my hoof before I could pull it away.
“You’re late,” purred Cadenza, holding the door open just wide enough to parade out. Her eye glowed a burning orange, which as far as I could figure was a sign that Cadenza was mentally laughing at me. I scooted out of the way, muzzle scrunching when my stinging hoof hit the floor with a burst of static.
Cadenza blinked, her gaze shifting to a neutral white. “Oh, sorry, did I get you with the door earlier? Metal and magic, they don’t mix.” She gave a sympathetic glance towards my horn before stepping to the side, opening the door a little wider. “Go ahead, Engineer, she’s expecting you.”
I bit my lip and rushed past Cadenza, almost tripping over the uneven plating in the doorway. Laughing at me or not, it wouldn’t do to upset the Princess. I kept my eyes on the ground as I made my way to the center of the throne room, my steady hooffalls punctuated by the door slamming behind me. The floor was sprinkled with dots of light, reflecting from some of the many stained-glass windows depicting glory and the means we’d used to survive. They shimmered against the steel floor in fiery hues cast from the setting sun as I came to a halt.
My crystal-powered joints whispered as I lowered myself into a bow before the throne. A soft chuckle greeted me, then delicate clinking of hoofsteps, before a pair of crystalline shoes came to a stop a few feet from my muzzle.
“You’re late,” whispered a gentle voice as an ebony wingtip lifted my chin from the ground. My heart pounded in my chest as I gave a hesitant smile to my Princess, the one who’d kept Equestria together as best as she could when the Elements misfired.
Nightmare Moon smiled back, her helmet tucked under one wing as she bent down to give me a kiss, one I happily reciprocated. At least Celestia wasn’t here to witness this. She was probably sitting vigil in her room, still mourning over a nation killed by her temper. Most days it was wisest just to let her mourn. I nuzzled against my Princess’s armor as she tenderly wrapped a wing around me.
“I’m so sorry, darling,” I said, pressing against the cool armored alicorn. “I’m afraid I overslept a bit. Did I miss anything important?”
Nightmare Moon chuckled, her fangs glinting in the dimming light of the room. “You missed me, did you not?” Her smile dimmed into an all-too-familiar scowl. “You missed Celestia refusing to leave her bed today. I was sorely tempted to dump her out of it, just to see if she’d bother to move from the floor to the bed again.”
I gave a noncommittal hum, not sure what to say in response. Agreeing seemed smarter, but it still felt wrong to talk negatively about Celestia.
“Walk with me,” murmured Nightmare Moon, pulling away from my embrace. “There's something you need to know.”