“Get a load of that couple!”
To Lemon Hearts, these words were a dinner gong. She looked up from her fifth mug of cider (not much so far, but she was gathering momentum) to see what her friend was pointing at.
On the grassy “dancefloor” where the dresses swept along and the cufflinks shone in the candlelight, there was indeed a couple, but only in instalments: one unicorn stallion alternating between two familiar faces. You didn’t live in Ponyville long without picking up on the big names in town, even if the third of those big names had only come along for a few days of festival.
“So which one do you think he’s taking?” said Sassaflash, who stopped pointing in case she was noticed (gossip tasted better when it was secretly passed around). “Applejack or Rarity?”
“Why not both?” said Lemon, shrugging.
“No, seriously, look! Even Applejack’s all dolled up for the occasion. Ooh, I love that dress!”
“Maybe she lost a bet?”
On the opposite side of the barrel-passing-for-a-table, Sea Swirl screwed up her face in intense concentration, which she always needed for anything tangled up with reality. “I heard Rarity was acting funny lately. I heard she tried talking ‘all country-like’ and wearing droopy drawers.”
The giggles beat the combined forces of imagination. Lemon and Sassaflash had to stuff hooves into mouths.
“What, does Trenderhoof have a thing for dirty stuff?” said Lemon when it was safe to surface.
“No, I mean she wanted to impress him. That’s what I heard, I think.”
Such a subtle question floored Sea Swirl’s brain, a task akin in difficulty to sitting on a feather. “I don’t know. Someone.”
“Well, that narrows it down a bit.” Lemon took another swig – no, in fact, she full-on quaffed, a trick that normally required careful elbow action and good enough aim to splash anyone standing three yards behind. “She’s still got bad taste in boyfriends, then.”
Sea Swirl blinked back out of her daydreams – or, given it was night-time, daydreams on overtime. “Who’s Trenderhoof, sorry?”
“You’re kidding! You don’t know who Trenderhoof is?” Another quaff, another yelp as someone behind Lemon got a free sample.
Sassaflash rolled her eyes. “Poor, poor Sea Swirl.”
“What?” said Sea Swirl.
“Well,” continued Lemon, “then again, why not? He’s just some trendsetter who travels a bit. They didn’t even call him to this festival; he just turned up with a smile on his face.”
“I thought he sent a letter first?” said Sassaflash.
“Yeah, and he had a very pretty smile in the signed photo he enclosed.”
They watched the dancing trio for a little while. How someone as unromantic as Applejack had gotten involved, only she could see. Lemon knew her love triangles, and this one could barely ting a note.
“It’s simple, really,” she said, swishing her mug side to side per point emphasized. “Rarity’s got a crush on Trenderhoof because she’s shallow –”
“They both love fashion,” corrected Sassaflash. “And they’re super-classy and nice and dramatic and came from humble beginnings and have travelled the country and –”
“– like I said, she’s shallow – and pretty-boy there’s got a crush on Applejack because… I dunno, he likes ’em hot and sweaty, maybe? Nothing more than a funny infatuation for a few days. I’ve forgotten who we’re even talking about.”
“Rarity and Applejack and Trenderhoof,” said Sea Swirl helpfully.
In the pause, Lemon reached across and patted her on the head, not unkindly. “Bless your brains, kid.”
“Oh, Lemon! You’re nuts!” Sassaflash’s wing flapped at Lemon’s face, but not too hard. “That,” she declared proudly, “is love-love-loooooove.”
“I agree!” said Sea Swirl a mite hastily.
Lemon scoffed. “A moment ago, you didn’t even know who he was.”
“I still think Sassaflash has a point.”
“Thanks, Sea Swirl!” Sassaflash raised and shook her empty mug. “Would you be a dear and get me some more cider? They haven’t auctioned it all off yet.”
“You’re such a good friend!”
As she watched Sea Swirl wander blithely among the dancers instead of intelligently going around them, Lemon Hearts wondered how Sassaflash could be so blind. The eager tones, the hopeful glimmer in the eye, the full-body sigh like someone slumping in relaxed defeat… What did Sea Swirl have to do, dance on a table and sing, “LOVE ME, LOVE ME, BABY!”?
Sea Swirl and Sassaflash. Ooh, theirs was a baaaaaaaaaad case.
In the awkward silence – Lemon didn’t claim it, she just drank and looked for the next drink coming along on a tray – she debated the wisdom of broaching the subject to Sassaflash, a mare whom she secretly believed wouldn’t notice the sky falling until it knocked her mug out of her hooves. Besides, when it came to unrequited love, Lemon had views.
From a certain point of view, for instance, she was proud of how well this case was spinning out, like a lawyer being paid by the month. Sea Swirl all but melted around Sassaflash, too in love to confess. This was all right, because Sassaflash – now inspecting her reflection in the watery dregs at the bottom – was so self-absorbed she was too busy admiring her own haunches to notice anything past them. Even when Sea Swirl dropped everything to help Sassaflash, who was equally willing to drag her in as a sounding wall, psychiatrist’s pillow, shoulder to cry on, and sympathetic ear – usually because Sassaflash had done something stupid – neither of them got any further on the love-o-meter.
They complemented each other beautifully. And that was all the evidence Lemon needed to keep them well out of the romance leagues, by the tip of a crossbow bolt if necessary. Their relationship was already on the edge of “master and slave” territory. They didn’t need introducing to whips and chains.
Sassaflash sighed. “Rarity did all that to make Trenderhoof happy…”
“What, wear droopy drawers?”
“Oh tush, Lemon. It’s the sacrifice!” Stars twinkled in Sassaflash’s eyes: she was already seeing the roses and red lips. “Rarity was willing to go the extra mile for him! Everyone could see it! She’d burn down all of Ponyville for him if he asked, I’m sure of it!”
“At least they’d be warm. Enjoying the stupidly named holiday?”
“You bet! Does my hair look all right?”
“Half of it, anyway. The other half’s all left.”
“I guess halfway decent is OK,” said Sassaflash, showing her unerring ability to hear only what she wanted to hear. Irritably, she tutted and stroked her mane flat. “Still…”
“And the chance that Rarity and Trenderhoof could have a normal talk and work out a couple of dates or something is…?”
“Oh, they couldn’t do that. It’d have to be searing fires of passion burning across the ages like a beacon of red-hot love.”
“Cool, cool, everyone’s entitled to their dumbest opinion. Hey, can I have that?” Without waiting for an answer, Lemon swiped someone else’s mug of cider off a passing tray. “Isn’t this nice, eh?”
“Uh huh. Ponyville looks almost as amazing as me tonight.”
“Ponyville sure is dull, isn’t it?” Lemon could have doubled up laughing. Ponies didn’t want big, extravagant events. They were skittish. In this backwater town – nothing like the sophisticated capital of Canterlot – they tended not to live their lives beyond the surrounding fields. In some respects, they were as observant as Sassaflash.
Because what ponies really needed, in Lemon’s view, was to dump their fairy tales in the Everfree Forest, wake up, and get through life one day at a time. Ponies thought they wanted excitement, adventure, and really wild things, but that was like idiot ponies thinking storms looked pretty. Sure, at a distance: up close, they were messy as heck and tended to shock.
Regular days out: that was the key. Party, bread, and circuses. Thank goodness for Ponyville’s endless parade of festivals, including the one celebrating the fact that it was the only day they didn’t have a festival.
Sea Swirl returned, staggering under a tray loaded with three drinks; despite her unicorn spell, telekinesis didn’t necessarily make a magical pony good at balance. “I love the Ponyville Days Festival.”
“I love how classy everything looks.” Sassaflash patted her own mane again.
“I love the drinks,” said Lemon. “Gimme, gimme, gimme.”
“Did you know,” said Sea Swirl as though imparting cosmic wisdom, “that the Ponyville Days Festival celebrates the founding of Ponyville?”
Lemon stopped quaffing. “Does it? Never.”
“That’s what I heard.” Here, Sea Swirl was airing her general atomic approach to life, which was to keep going in a direction until she bounced off someone who’d explain things to her. “It’s a shame they didn’t discover the zap apples until months later, or I could get you all Zap Apple Cider.”
Ever the connoisseur for things that sloshed and then briefly made the world an easier place, Lemon shuddered and grunted. “Cider so quick it goes bad before it even hits your tongue. Now that’s a taste explosion.”
“I don’t think that’s suitable for Small Town Chic,” scolded Sassaflash, who like Rarity loved the idea of Canterlot.
“Oh I dunno; I’m game for it,” said Lemon, who actually lived there.
“You’ve got no class, have you?”
“Ha! Do I look like a teacher to you?”
“You know what I mean. Look at Applejack. Even she’s wearing a lovely ensemble tonight –”
“I heard she’s called it Applejewel,” volunteered Sea Swirl, whose brain had just pinged off a wall and was now off again.
“Ooooooooooh, I WANT one!”
“Ooh, ooh, I could get you one!”
“Awww.” Sassaflash reached over and stroked Sea Swirl’s mane like she was rewarding a particularly clever dog. “Sea Swirl, you really are a sweetie. And you’re oh-so generous, yes you are, yes you are…”
Lemon gagged in her drink.
“Something funny, Lemon?” said Sassaflash.
One glance at those cold eyes told Lemon not to risk it. “Not for your pretty ears, trust me. And Sea Swirl? You’d best go straight to the manufacturer, then.”
On her seat overlooking the “dancefloor” – which was giving way to a catwalk and curtains – Sea Swirl sagged. “Oh dear, I don’t think I could make it to Canterlot for… well, moons.”
“I meant Rarity, you numbskull,” said Lemon, laughing.
“Oh. I forgot she made dresses!”
“You’d forget the sky was blue if we weren’t here.”
Sea Swirl looked up intensely. “Dark blue? And sort of whiteish where the stars are?”
“Drink your cider.”
During all this, Lemon noticed Sassaflash watching the swirl and circle of the fashion models on the catwalk. If the envy on her face had crushed it any tighter, she’d be turning green. Briefly, Lemon felt her pain. Not that she cared about the fancy-pants stuff, but sometimes in her crabbed little soul, she did wonder what she was missing out on.
To her surprise, Sea Swirl got up fast enough to knock a drink over. “I’m going to get snacks. Lemon, would you please help me?”
That was an act: there was only one reason anyone would ask to see Lemon one-on-one. It’s not like it didn’t stand out. Most ponies didn’t want to see Lemon at all.
On their way along the fashion show, they passed the clothes Lemon knew she couldn’t afford if she saved up for a year. Ponies knew to believe in themselves and to be true to their souls; Lemon had spotted the flaw in that reasoning right away.
“It’s all right for some, eh?” she muttered.
“What?” said Sea Swirl.
“Nothing, just some observational humour.”
Only once they met the canapés did Sea Swirl – whilst intensely piling profiteroles onto her plate – open up. “Can, can I ask for some… special… advice?”
She’s barely done anything not-innocent, thought Lemon, and she’s already blushing. Celestia be cursed, I hate them sorts.
“Yah?” she said, just eating the profiteroles there and then.
“I, um… I don’t think I’m making any headway with… with Sass.” Sea Swirl was squirming under the effort.
“I wouldn’t know,” said Lemon cruelly. “I didn’t even know you drank sarsaparilla.”
“Noooooo… I mean Sassaflaaaaash…”
“Well, what of it?”
“Well! I don’t know! How to talk to her! I… I can’t do it. I need to know…”
Not that Lemon needed to ask. She could read it in Sea Swirl’s face, contorting as if her lips, nostrils, cheeks, and eyelids wanted to hide behind each other. The obvious problem with unrequited love was that sometimes it knew darn well what it was.
“Do you think she… likes me likes me?”
Seriously? Ponies still say that? Lemon dismissed her thoughts and peered over the barrels-for-tables at Sassaflash, who was now preening a wing with her teeth.
Lemon opened her mouth to say I think, but remembered who she was supposed to be playing at and switched it at once. “I feel there’s a definite connection there.”
That was always a good wheeze. Certainly, Sea Swirl was too desperate to spot it.
“Could you…?” And now Sea Swirl was practically trying to wriggle out of her own skin. Her face was rushing past summer and into the sunset blaze of autumn; any moment now, it’d probably crinkle and drop off.
Gamely, Lemon waited until she suddenly couldn’t. “Could I what?”
“Could you… help… give her a nudge?”
“What, like a memo?”
“No, no, no… I, uh… I… mean… to save time… you know… with a potion… magically.”
Lemon went stale. She got this a lot.
Some ponies were naïve when it came to love. That, Lemon could appreciate. And then you got the really naïve ones, the ones who were about as innocent as tourists in a warzone, the sort who prod soldiers to ask for autographs, and who eventually turn into battle damage reports (as in: “unidentified parts, possible civilian”).
There were ponies who thought love was this wonderful thing you could hand out like candy to share. They thought making ponies love something was a kindness. And therefore they thought that using literally love-making mind spells was a good idea, though the ones with a scrap of sense would at least look embarrassed about it.
It wasn’t all their fault, poor things. Sea Swirl had all the social instinct of a wet conch, and barely got around outside her own mental shell. Her logic made a certain sense, if your idea of love was to look at someone and immediately hear violins, struggle to blink, and want to dash forwards and hold them like putty.
It was just let down by this teeny-tiny little detail of a hitch of a minor problem that Lemon liked to call The Real World. Ponies had minds of their own. It was what separated them from, say, rubber balloons. They weren’t smile-drawn dolls to act out in some little girl’s fantasy, even if some of them had skulls that’d leak helium if someone drilled too far down.
So with all the tact she didn’t show at other times, Lemon coolly said, “Nooooooooooo.”
“Right, right,” said Sea Swirl, still struggling not to struggle against herself. “I guess that wouldn’t be right, would it?”
Lemon decided on a rare moment of pity. “I th– I feel that’s not quite the right approach here.”
Feel: it was such a good word. Ponies would be suspicious of “I think” no matter how much homework it did, but they’d follow “I feel” over a cliff.
“These things take time.” Lemon swilled the words around her mouth. “These things have to take time, I mean. As in, naturally.”
“Of course, of course… only…”
“You’ve made tremendous progress already. Hang in there, girl.”
“Oh yes,” Lemon lied through her teeth, which was her favourite way of doing it, “loads of progress. She practically swoons when you’re around now.”
“Well… she does like touching my hair…”
“There you are, then!” Good cheer flooded through Lemon like a tonic; nothing cheered her up more than watching ponies queue up to be idiots on her behalf.
As they sat back down at the barrel-turned-table, however, Lemon felt the tingle of approaching magic. She looked up.
Over the heads of the crowd – some of whom gasped and pointed – a floating heart. Thin as a bubble, pink as pure sappiness, softened and rounded and bulging like everything wrong with ponydom, at least in Lemon’s eyes.
“What now?” she grumbled under her breath.
The floating heart drifted down to their table – Sassaflash flew up into the air whilst Sea Swirl bashed her legs against the wood trying to get away – and landed with a gentle, bubbly pop on Lemon’s horn. Sparkles filled her vision for a moment, then faded away to leave, hovering on tingly magic, a letter.
Sea Swirl and Sassaflash sat back down. No one wants to admit they got spooked by a piece of paper.
“Great,” muttered Lemon. “Work, work, work.”
“Oh, is that from Canterlot?” said Sea Swirl.
Just in time, Lemon caught her lips moving and backed up. She was supposed to get messages like this at home, but clearly someone hadn’t taken into account the time differences yet.
“Yeah,” she said breezily. “That is what it is. Work. From Canterlot. Probably another state dinner at the palace. Where I work. At the palace. Doing state dinners. Which is what this letter is about. Work.”
Both girls nodded. She was saved by Sea Swirl’s unoccupied smile and Sassaflash’s barely-there interest.
The “state dinners” job had always been a good line in a rural town like Ponyville. For one thing, it explained why she sometimes disappeared and where her money came from. For another, it was completely unproveable.
The letter was short and sweet, which suited Lemon, who was neither. She stood up.
“I think I’ll turn in,” she said, faking a yawn. “Early rise tomorrow. Can’t wait. One more for the road, girls?”
Cadence wanted a report. Lemon wanted another drink.
Lemon Hearts wanted a lot of things out of life. Some of them clinked. But there was more to her than glug and gold.
See Lemon Hearts, the next morning, sitting on the train riding out of Ponyville with the letter twirling between her hooves. See the jaundice in her skin, the blue depression on her eyelids, the curls too lazy to unravel around her drooping ears. See the satchel bulging and occasionally sloshing in her saddlebag.
See her cutie mark. Three hearts, two colours.
In a way, Lemon approved of the cutie mark. At a distance, the two pink hearts were lovers and the third one was her heart guiding them both. Up close… well, two pink, mushy hearts was right, and then there was the third face of love, the love that was sickly green and had probably been vomited out on curry night.
Romance was not for the romantic. She was a matchmaker, and an expert matchmaker by dint of not having been kicked out after her first disaster. Because she made sure there were no disasters. She couldn’t afford one. When it came to helping star-crossed lovers, sometimes you needed a cold, hard witch to tell them it wasn’t worth all the sharp bits.
She didn’t trust in crossed stars, but she did trust in ponies who, with a little canoodling and cajoling, wouldn’t get too cross. And for those rare times when the worst came to the worst, she believed in handing out fishing rods and pointing to the nearest sea.
Not that she needed to. Lemon was legend. She… well, she had failed once or twice, because the job could never be perfect, but even there she managed an amicable parting. This was the matchmaking equivalent of “Bullseye” Billy Gruff in a game of goat darts.
She had to be good. If an innocent lover was like a tourist in a warzone, then an innocent matchmaker was like a tourist in a warzone who wore VR goggles, listened to loud headphones, and hopped around on a pogo stick strapped with dynamite.
In short, Lemon knew what she was dealing with. Love had its pinkness, true, but forget the sickly green part and it’d sneak up on you. It sneaked up on ponies who thought even tragedies were noble and sweet, up until one suddenly and explosively hit them like a club with a nail in it. It couldn’t sneak up on Lemon because she was already shaking it by the hoof and shoving veggie hotdogs into its mouth.
On the seats up ahead, two pairs of lips merged into each other. Lemon sneered, just not with much enthusiasm. Their kissing technique was so sloppy a janitor would have cleaned it up.
But she said nothing.
As a member of the Matchmakers’ Guild, she had rules. The first and worst was that she could watch, but she couldn’t take part. No romantic attachments, no deep feelings, no getting swept up in it. She judged the game from the outside, or not at all. After all, soppy romance had to be carefully and coldly measured. The alternative was like trying to scoop up custard with water.
So when the couple up ahead broke apart, then decided they were game for round two and became squidgy and noisy again, Lemon eventually had to look away.
The other rule was that she couldn’t matchmake if she hadn’t been asked first. She was a guiding hoof, a request-taker only, a doctor asking for consent. No interference. No magic – including potions and poisons. No complications. Love was a bumpy enough road as it was without the asphalt team deciding to get creative.
And above all, the matchmaker didn’t have the final say in the coupling. Not since the ancient incident of Princess Golden Dream and her being slipped a love poison by Prince Blue Dream.
Even books on legitimate love potions were strictly regulated for precisely that reason, though oddly enough, royal books had long been an infamous loophole. Probably on the grounds that alicorn princesses and their associates were automatically trustworthy. Lemon had laughed for days when she’d found that one out.
Speaking of which… if Sea Swirl knew about love potions, then there was probably an information leak somewhere. Lemon solemnly secretly was pleased at the chance to wave the point around like a spiked bludgeon.
Also solemnly secretly, she watched the couple up ahead, who were now doing with their lips things a toilet plunger couldn’t achieve.
Officially, Lemon just worked as a specialist in companionate love, since that was basically friendship with more mouth action. And in the land of friendship and harmony, it was also the easiest one to pull off.
That said, she liked a challenge. And she was greedy, almost cupidly so. Lemon obeyed boundaries like 500-pound gorillas obeyed “Do Not Sit Here” signs.
She was reading the couple right now: in the straightness of their spines, in the curve and flow of their limbs, in the way they sat slightly tilted away from each other and with their eyes suspiciously closed…
Ah, ponies. You had to laugh, and probably cry a lot inside. Romantic confessions and heartfelt speeches! Sea Swirl would have found herself in the darkest days of her life if she’d tried that stunt. Ponies didn’t have a clue.
For one thing, love was more like a language. Sure, ponies had some instincts for it – would seek it out, pay attention to it, dabble a bit here and there – but that didn’t make them linguists. They had to swim in it first and come up spitting fountains in synchronized teams. Refuse to dive in for too long, and you basically got feral kids who could only doggy paddle.
Lemon wondered if she could get everyone classified as “feral kids” by default, and who’d be mad at her if she tried.
She knew the language all right. She could read emotions themselves. She saw beneath the mask to the tender feelings and the deepest loves all the way down to the bedrock of the soul. In the land of peace and harmony, she saw the true heart of ponydom. That was one reason why she drank, swore, and puffed on a stick of straw all the time. She’d gotten so bad she could puff three stacks a day.
The couple were now apparently trying to suction each other’s muzzles off.
Lemon snorted. “Like sheep am I gonna watch this.”
Against the jolting of the carriage, she reached into her satchel and pulled out a stick of straw.
“Do you mind?” said an old mare two seats along.
“Course I mind,” muttered Lemon, puffing out of the corner of her mouth. “Why do you think I’m doing it?”
“There are children in this compartment! I’m going to complain to the conductor! Conductor! I say, Mister Conductor!”
Some sullen puffing later, Lemon found herself lazily gazing back at a beard and a pair of eyes that would rather be somewhere else.
“I’m asking nicely,” he explained. “We have a no-straw rule.”
“What the flapdoodle kind of sense does that make, anyway?”
“Ma’am, if you please…?”
Defiantly, Lemon held the gaze for as long as seemed fine. Then she plucked the stick of straw out of her mouth and stubbed it out on the carriage floor.
“No law against littering, right?” she said, winking.
The conductor hurried off. As soon as he was gone, Lemon grabbed another stick of straw and puffed that instead.
Ignoring the passive-aggressive tutting nearby, she took out the letter and read it again.
The Cadence Network.
That was what they were unofficially called, largely because they weren’t supposed to be called at all. Lovestruck ponies who’d take a rando’s gibberings as common sense strangely took offence at the idea that somepony could officially know more about love than they did.
There were ponies all over: contacts, bureaucrats, theoretical psychophysicists, and of course matchmakers. All part of the nationwide “lovecare” service, the existence of which would be a massive offence to all those peaceful, friendly ponies who knew they were naturally loving anyway.
Lemon could crack ribs trying not to laugh at this one.
So she went back to watching the two lovers up ahead. One tragedy at a time.
She could read their emotions. That was the trouble. When ponies themselves couldn’t tell true romance from a friendship from a shallow infatuation, what chance did even a gibbering rando have? One would demand deeper commitment; the other would wonder what all the fuss was about. Tempers would clash swords. Lemon gave the couple three weeks tops.
Their feelings were doomed. She could see the tide pulling out.
Lemon puffed on a third stick of straw until the conductor came and threatened to throw her off the train.
Lemon didn’t bother waiting for an invitation. As soon as she arrived at the Crystal Empire, she went straight for the castle with a nonchalant “Heya!” to the flustered guards she passed. They were still chasing her, crying out “Ma’am! MA’AM!” as she burst through the doors to the throne room.
They finally managed to catch up with her – Lemon at a “casual” trot could outpace all but the fastest guards in clanking armour.
“Hey!” one shouted, blocking her way with a spear. “Who goes there?”
She sneered at him. Young, fresh-faced, probably learned guarding out of a textbook.
“Little late to be asking now, ain’t it?” Lemon brushed his confused face aside and swaggered up to the throne. “Nice armour polish, though. Yo, High-‘n’-Mightiness, what’s shakin’?”
This wasn’t directed at the now thoroughly clueless guards – an overconfident voice will do that to a new recruit – nor at the gathering of crystal ponies with scrolls, banners, and jittery hooves. It certainly wasn’t directed at Captain Flash Sentry, who moved forwards at the sight of her and – unlike them – had professional wrath written all over him.
It was directed at the mare who hastily raised a hoof to block him.
Princess Cadence was no fool. In contrast to all the confused and outraged faces, hers had gone political: shut down and carefully indicated no emotion whatsoever. The two of them had met, after all.
Not that it fooled Lemon. Her eyes saw past the official mask of calm to the frothing seas of passion and fury behind them. It was quite restful, in a way, like watching a raging storm from a cabin window.
“No, thank you,” said Cadence when Flash Sentry tried going around her. “I know what this is about. I’ll handle her myself.”
“Would all of you be so good as to leave us?”
Lemon said nothing. She was too busy radiating polite smugness.
Captain Flash Sentry clearly hadn’t been around long, but some ponies learned fast. “For her? Are you sure, Your Highness? At this time –?”
“As your Crystal Princess, I must insist.” More reasonably, Cadence added, “Besides, I think I can be trusted to handle one mare, Captain.”
His face wasn’t convinced, but with bad grace he signalled for the guards and planning committee to follow him out the double doors. They clicked shut behind him.
Cadence and Lemon. Lemon and Cadence.
To Cadence’s credit, she never let her guard down even once: the polite mask remained up. “Most of my agents would have sent reports, you realize?”
“Oh, and miss all of this?” Lemon cheerfully wandered among all the bunting and banners. “Lovely what you’ve done with the place. You got glug? I could do with something for this parched throat.”
And she eyed up the throne, moved towards it, raised her butt –
Cadence gave a meaningful cough.
Lemon held her position for as long as she dared, then she beamed and sauntered off to the side instead. “Anyway, lovely to see you, O Crystal Princess. Which I’m not doing, of course, because ain’t I just a little old mare from Canterlot Castle? State dinners, was it?”
But Cadence was smart. She knew better than to rise to this bait.
“I’m still curious,” she said in a level tone, “why you didn’t send a report like my other agents would’ve.”
“Of course I’d show up just for you,” said Lemon, eyeing up the spread of food samples to one side and helping herself to an éclair. “Who else would?”
She also helped herself to a bottle – didn’t matter what was in it – whistled a tune under her breath, pulled out a stick of straw, and with a casual flourish leaned against the table, pleased to hear its legs groan slightly against the floor and her oppressive weight.
“Anyway,” she said, grinning like a banana, “how’s your love life?”
It was worth it just to see the storm of flushed red behind the mask. Cadence was massively good at self-control now. She didn’t even need to use her breathing techniques.
In some ways, Lemon was a petty, petty mare. She had Cadence over a barrel, and Cadence knew it, and Cadence knew that Lemon knew it. And Lemon was enjoying the view.
“I would’ve expected you to follow Matchmakers’ Guild principles,” said Cadence with deceptive calm. “That means you don’t report directly to me. This is supposed to be secret.”
“Oh, but it is,” said Lemon, beaming. “If anyone asks, I’m an emissary from Canterlot, remember? Specializing in big events. And looks like you got quite a few of those –” Lemon swept her forelimb to take in the bunting, banners, and buffet. “– coming up soon. Equestria Games, wasn’t it?”
“Please don’t lean against the table,” said Cadence. A little more coldly than usual.
Lemon was feeling generous. She swung herself upright, not-so-accidentally knocking the table as she did so. A bottle fell over, rolled, threw itself over the edge, and hovered the instant Lemon’s spell levitated it.
“No point wasting good glug,” she said, bringing it to her lips. Then she paused and added, “Well, not all matchmaker rules are the same, are they, Your Highness? I mean, not showing up in person: that’s more a guideline, really, isn’t it? Just to be safe. Whereas matchmaking when you’re married… now that’s a violation of what I believe is called ‘non-participation and objectivity’. Not that little ol’ me knows them long words.”
“Direct non-participation and objectivity,” corrected Cadence softly, as if Lemon were a backwards but well-intentioned student. “Large-scale coordination is different. It’s not technically matchmaking if I delegate.”
In a zap of excitement, Lemon straightened up, paced back and forth. “Exactly! And who has to pick up the extra load? Muggins, that’s who!”
“Me! All your extra work!”
“And I trust you to handle it, Lemon, I really do. Don’t believe for a moment I would –”
“Right! Ain’t I special!?”
Cadence sighed: even her schoolteacherly patience had its limits. “What do you want, Lemon?”
“Apart from the chance to watch you squirm?” Lemon sniggered and moved over to the throne again, though she knew better than to threaten to park her butt on it. That was probably treason, or something.
“I mean,” said Cadence with something too sharp to pass as patience, “you must have noticed I was busy.”
“Ooh, yes. Running the Crystal Empire, preparing for the Maretonia talks… and what is this my pretty little ears hear about the Equestria Games? Someone’s gone up in the world, haven’t they?”
Ah, too far. Lemon wished she hadn’t said that last bit. Too bitter, even if she was a Lemon. But it was true: barely a few months ago, Cadence had been just an excited overgrown girl getting married, and suddenly all this had thrown itself at her hooves.
Perhaps Lemon was pushing too hard? Just in case, she changed tack.
“Why don’t you delegate there too?” she said, trying to sound reasonably sweet. “Ask Shining Armor, you know, your husband. Make him do his share of the dishes.”
“He’s busy training the teams.”
“Aw, poor stressed-out him.”
“Well,” said Lemon with a gleam in her grin, “why don’t you do something nice for him?”
Cadence blushed, despite her self-control.
“Take him for a relaxing flight, I was going to say next,” continued Lemon.
“No… I don’t think so…”
“Come on. Don’t be so grounded. You know what they say about flying a mile high: if you can’t get off with Cadence, you’ll never get off anywhere.”
Cadence almost choked. Lemon admired her handiwork for a moment, then took a satisfying puff.
“Just a thought,” she continued breezily. “Then Twilight, or something –”
Too late, Cadence caught herself, and yes, there was the breathing trick again. Lemon waited until the hoof had swept aside and the breath had been slowly let out.
“No,” said Cadence more calmly. “Twilight’s going through enough as it is.”
“Yeah, I bet she is.” Lemon cursed herself. Once too bitter, always too bitter…
“I mean, I can handle this.”
Lemon, who was watching the storm flurry and flash behind Cadence’s eyes, had to stuff a hoof in her mouth. Even when her shoulders stopped shaking, a little chortle escaped when she pulled her hoof out.
“You mean pretending everything is hunky-dory and hoping you don’t crack? Wow, no wonder everyone thinks you’re blander than milk on toast.”
In the silence, Cadence strode over to the throne – Lemon hurried aside – sat down, pressed her hooves against her temples, and held that pose until the storm died down to a mere rumble of threatening thunder. For once, Lemon didn’t crack wise. Like most gadflies, she knew when not to bite.
“I take it you have a report?” said Cadence shortly.
The suddenness caught Lemon off-guard, but she helped herself to another stick of straw and something squidgy in pastry before her nerves let her speak.
“Er… yes, yes, I do. Usual business with Sea Swirl and Sassaflash, bad business, bad business…”
Cadence closed her eyes to aid her memory. “Unrequited Love Number Sixteen, I take it?”
“Pfft, more like Breakdown Nightmare Number Seven, if we’re not careful. It’s going to end badly.”
“Does this special talent lie?” Lemon jabbed at her own cutie mark.
“But it’s OK. I can spin it out and avoid the worst-case scenario. Trust me, the longer this is delayed, the less terrible it’ll be. Play my cards right, I could make sure it never happens at all.”
“Wouldn’t it be better for Sea Swirl to confess now?”
Lemon rolled on the floor and Cadence had to help her up and pat her on the back till she could breathe again.
“Seriously?” she chortled, whilst Cadence slid back into her throne as though she were a pupil in disgrace. “Did you even read that report I sent you?”
“You don’t send me reports.”
“Then did you even remember that report I told you? Sassaflash has all the romantic delicacy of a bull in a china shop! She’s practically stringing the poor idiot along as we speak, and that’s just friendship. And she’s overemotional. And that’s just Sassaflash! Sea Swirl’s basically an overgrown child! No healthy coping mechanisms, no sense of social timing, barely any ability to negotiate. And you want them to get full romantic on each other? Light a candle and toss it into a fireworks factory: tell me what happens next.”
Cadence leaned back and peered at the banners overhead. “I see. I hadn’t considered that.”
“Yeesh, good thing you delegate now.”
This earned Lemon a sharp look. “Never mind. I still believe that love will out.”
“Trouble is, so will everything else. You’re slipping, Your Highness. No offence. It was inevitable.”
They both knew it. That was one reason why matchmakers couldn’t be trusted once they fell in love. Love had a way of turning everything rose-tinted. Even a tragic relationship suddenly looked beautiful, like a rose artistically ruined.
The trouble was that, in real life, messing up a relationship was… messy.
“Ah me.” Lemon sighed and glugged some more unidentifiable drink. “The stress, the pressure, the words once spoken never unspoken…”
“Mmm,” hummed Cadence.
“No, best to avoid all that. Eh, Cadence?”
Again, Cadence wisely ignored the bait.
Lemon shrugged and tipped the bottle so far back she was in danger of dropping it down her throat. Much glugging ensued.
“What else?” she murmured once she was done. “Ah yes… a pretty funny Love Triangle Number Five involving Rarity going off her nut –”
Delightedly, Cadence’s ears rose. “Oh, one of Twilight’s –?”
“Don’t get excited. It was a flash-in-a-pan thing.”
Gloomily, Cadence’s ears fell. “I see. Another one of those things. There seem to be too many of those things lately.”
“Good entertainment, though.” Lemon puffed on her third stick of straw with every sign of pleasure. “Otherwise, no real developments. Oh, and you might want to investigate a certain love poison leak. Sea Swirl had the crazy idea I could make a love potion to brainwash someone.”
“What!?” Cadence sat up straight.
“I know, right? I was thinking: since when do love potions make someone fall in love with you? Don’t they just enhance what’s already there? Well, she didn’t put it that way. This was more between the lines. Told you, didn’t I? She’s just an overgrown child. Now, me,” said Lemon, and she didn’t bother hiding the bitterness this time, “I’d start asking: Where did she get that idea? I’d start considering suspects. Alicorn origin, book-loving, naïve to the point of social cluelessness… Can’t imagine where you’d start, mind.”
She heard Cadence flutter her wings in agitation. Check, she thought, and mate.
“Whereas you figured this out as a result of hard work?” said Cadence innocently. Too innocently.
“Hard work, plus intuition, plus bribery, plus perks.”
Lemon glugged, glugged, glugged until the bottle emptied.
What rankled the most in Lemon’s chest was that she spent a lot of time in Ponyville – was practically in plain sight most of the time – and Twilight still hadn’t noticed her. Jeez, it wasn’t as if it had been that long ago, back in Canterlot. Even Cadence recognized Lemon, and they’d only crossed paths a few times. Admittedly, only because Lemon thought it was funny, but at least Cadence did her the honour of disliking her to her face.
To her surprise, she heard Cadence give a loud groan. She looked up… and that was when Lemon really worried.
The storm behind Cadence’s eyes had turned black. It spiked. It had facets, and edges, and points. In short, it was hardening.
“Ugh,” grunted Cadence, clutching her head. Her wings fanned out as if to beat back the clouds. “I really, really can’t cope with this now, Lemon!”
Lemon’s voice was suddenly stern. “What are you doing to yourself, Cadence?”
“I’ve been watching you the whole time. That is not ‘nothing’.”
“I can cope…”
“Total Castor and Pollux, Starry-Eyes. Even the bulls are calling that one out. Don’t lie to me; there’s no point. I can see that’s no ordinary migraine.”
Cadence groaned, if anything, even more loudly than before. The back of Lemon’s brain made a bad joke that, unusually, she quickly stifled. The sticks of straw fell to the ground, the uneaten food she levitated back, and in a trice, she hopped in front of Cadence.
“Here,” said Lemon, more kindly than usual, “let me get Shining Armor –”
“NO!” Cadence took a deep breath, but she still winced and twitched. “No. I don’t want him to worry. He’s got his hooves full already.”
Lemon rolled her eyes in disgust. “Always the martyr. How… romantic.” She spat. “As usual, little ol’ Lemon is the rotten underbelly of the pwetty widdle pwincess. Very well. What is thy command, O Great and Passionate Lover?”
It was a mark of how serious Cadence’s migraine was that she didn’t even scold her for the sarcasm. Suddenly, Lemon was very, very serious indeed.
Taking a deep breath, Cadence wiped a hoof over her own face as if to vanish all the pain. “Actually, Lemon, I’m glad you’re here in person.”
“Oh,” said Lemon, genuinely surprised. “Are you? Um. Good.”
Cadence seemed to be fighting to talk. On a hunch, Lemon checked the storm’s progress.
“Oh, sugar-honey-iced…” Lemon paused, trying to remember the rest, then gave up. “Oh, shoot!”
“I’m fine…” Cadence gasped.
“Don’t try that on me. You. Are. Not. Fine.”
Sadly, Cadence nodded. “All right… all right… I understand. That’s actually why I wanted to talk to you.”
“Mmm.” Lemon’s doubtful hum vibrated among the crystalline vaunting overhead; a few banners swirled in the non-existent breeze. “Let me guess: you want to delegate more onto my plate?”
Cadence shook her head.
“OK. You don’t want a stress ball, or something?”
Again, Cadence shook her head.
“Not a stress ball, then. You’re sure? I’ll get you one that squeaks.”
In truth, Lemon was sinking into her own nerves. Delegation wasn’t pretty lately, and that had been her best guess.
“Look,” she said, trying to be nice and not enjoying it much, “why don’t you take a day off? Go relax for a little while. A cruise is always pleasant.”
She eyed the plumes of the black, purple, red, violently pink cloud. Deep in her own shrivelled brain, a few wet neurones sparked like a ripped cable in a gas station. Oh, she thought. Oooooooh, noooooo…
Through lips struggling to speak, Cadence said, “As the Head of the Matchmakers’ Guild, Lemon – and I want you to understand this – I am placing you under a geas.”
“I’d prefer a duck,” said Lemon out of nerves. A geas was a magical obligation and (to Lemon) a guarantee that fun was off the menu.
When Cadence straightened up, gone was the faintly soppy, perfect babysitter or the unflappably kind teacher. The one who sat up now was every inch the Crystal Princess, scourge of all evil and iron-hooved ruler of all she surveyed.
“I ask you,” she declared, “to perform a stress-suppressing spell.”
Lemon made a noise like a mouse popping out of a champagne bottle.
“You know, you’re terrible at comedy, Your Highness,” she babbled, pacing back and forth. “No offence, right, just trying to be helpful, but I prefer you as the Straight Mare, if you don’t mind.”
The storm crackled with lightning pain.
“Lemon!” thundered Cadence. “You’re under a geas!”
Another crack of lightning briefly shattered the cloud. Lemon hastily stepped back.
“Y-yeah, yeah,” she stammered. “Well, you know, there’s the occupational risk and, and the warming up costs… wear and tear on the ol’ unicorn horn… er, emotional compensation… I might be sick, or… oh, goodness me, look at me yawning, ain’t I tired, let’s pick this up tomorrow, and um… and… Look, you know the risks, right?”
“As Head of your Guild and as Crystal Princess –”
“Yeah!” squealed Lemon, trembling to stick straw after straw into her mouth and missing repeatedly. “Yeah! Isn’t this exciting! Tell you what: why don’t we forget the whole thing and just delegate? Running an empire, pleasing your husband, looking good all the time, persuading the yaks to open their borders, pretending things going wrong are things going right… Exciting! I love exciting! The fun just never ends!”
“Lemon!” A yelp of pain: Cadence cowered on her throne under the burst of lightning strikes.
This time, Lemon didn’t bother. She threw her straws down and pointed at Cadence, worry sparked into a blaze of fury.
“I told you!” she snapped. “I don’t meddle with minds! No potions! No poisons! No spells! That’s the code!”
“It’s…” Cadence spoke through gritted teeth. “It’s only… to heal the headache…”
“That’s my code! Don’t be stupid! What makes you think I’d sink that low?”
“I’ll… pay you for… your trouble –”
“PAY!? PAY!? THIS IS NOT ABOUT MONEY, GOSH DARN YOU!”
A tad too late, Lemon realized her accusing hoof was an inch from Cadence’s wobbling snout. Hastily, she lowered it. Then she backed off. Her glare refused to move, though. Fine by her.
“Listen to me, Little Miss Perfect,” continued Lemon aggressively, and for a moment she darkly wondered if this was where Twilight got it from. “You wouldn’t be in this mess if you didn’t swallow everything that came your way – What? What’s so funny?”
“Nothing,” spluttered Cadence, whose ribs were shaking even more than her skull.
“This isn’t anything like curing a headache.” Lemon glowered through Cadence at the toxic maelstrom. “If I penetrate too deep, I could get stuck –”
To her confusion, she heard Cadence wheeze trying not to bellow out laughing.
“– in someone else’s mind,” finished Lemon. Random laughter. Good grief, she thought, this is ee-ing, eff-ing, and gee-ing BAD…
After a while, she added, almost pleading: “There must be a better way.”
“Lemon,” whined Cadence, “please. As a friend?”
Despite her own protests, Lemon’s mind began to light up her horn. “You’re serious about that geas, then?”
“Serious. Now.” Even talking was too hard.
Lemon stared. A kingdom’s worth of troubles, and then some. It was a wonder Cadence hadn’t collapsed yet. Hoo boy…
The storm froze, hardened, slowly became a mass of spiked crystals. Stress never looked pretty. Leave it too long, it’d become the mind’s bedrock.
Finally, Lemon punched the floor with a stamp. “Oh, all right,” she said. “But this is under protest!”
Professionalism shoved anger aside whilst Lemon examined Cadence’s horn as an entry point. Probably Cadence would get a good laugh out of that right now…
Casting the spell alone was painful enough, even to Lemon. She hadn’t tried stuff like this in years – and even then, not for long before she’d hastily stopped herself – so the rustiness was only natural. Sizzles and glitter leaked out of her horn. Worse was the sheer block of reluctance plugging the channel in her head. Unicorns had to will the magic out of themselves, and Lemon was fighting her own resistance.
Besides, it wasn’t a spell to be cast lightly.
She closed her eyes. All the better to concentrate: all the better to rally, roll up her sleeves, grip the spell tight, and then push.
Through her own skull she slipped out. Sliding through the horn like a tunnel of love, out into the lake of the world outside, briefly into another tunnel – Cadence’s horn, much longer – Lemon felt a brief pang of envy – and into… into…
Lemon opened her eyes, and the first thing she saw was herself.
Lemon’s body stood near the crystal throne. Beyond, the sheer blueness and whiteness of the chamber seemed even bigger with Lemon’s own body as a scale model.
Lemon’s mind scoffed. It wasn’t a view she admired much, so she focused less on the body opposite – which still had its eyes closed – and turned inward, to examine its new surroundings, such as they were. To see Cadence from the inside.
The first membrane Lemon’s mind met was pink and gooey, and she had to struggle just to break through the layer. Stains clung to Lemon in heart shapes… which was odd, as there wasn’t actually anything to look at. But Cadence’s upper consciousness radiated essence of pink, and essence of goo, and essence of heart. The Cadence everyone saw and admired and expected.
Deep down, Lemon still felt it, but it was much stronger, gripped her harder as if determined to convince her. Lemon briefly felt it as if it were her own: the firm pink commitment to her fellow pony, the sense the world was and indeed ought to be made out of cotton candy and roses, a world where she had managed not just to love love itself –
Lemon’s core shuddered. Loving love itself was a dangerous emotion to feel. She felt flashes of delusion like crazy ponies staggering by, ponies insisting on goodness and rightness and perfection and happily ever afters even as the world and the ponies around them fought back against the quagmire of goo.
– but to love each and every pony, as their own soul.
Despite herself, Lemon was impressed. Cadence was no fool.
To love each and every pony, that is, even someone like Lemon.
Lemon was less impressed. Thanks, Cadence, she thought bitterly.
But even as she started to suffocate, even as the mindspace grew darker and stickier and cotton candy turned to tar, Lemon swam on. She held her breath. Cadence’s inner concepts started to stink: Cadence the babysitter, Cadence the childhood friend, Cadence the world’s kindergarten teacher, Cadence the cool big sis, Cadence the mother figure and mini-Celestia, Cadence the calm ruler, Cadence the rock of ages, Cadence the all-loving wife even when Shining was pushed to breaking point by day after day of grind…
How in the hay was she supposed to suppress all this?
Who was supposed to suppress all this, come to that?
She… whoever she was… peered closer, and in the midst of the darkness, she swore she saw a piece of flint. No, a seed of crystal.
She swam closer. Seemed familiar. A memory, perhaps? She drew closer and closer. Lots of things like this had a memory at its core. She peered inside.
From Cadence’s point of view, the little foal inside was unmistakeable. What gazed back was a little Twilight, fixed firmly in place, beaming at her babysitter with eyes that shone admiration. And what did she see?
The perfect babysitter.
And nothing else.
Lemo– Cadence glowered at the memory for a while. Then, with every delightful bit of spite, she swam at it and nudged the crystallized thought out of place.
Like a suddenly exposed plughole, the surrounding darkness began to pour away. Currents and forces jostled for a place along the queue of least resistance. Le– Cadence watched the black hole suck up all the gallons of stress, all the billows of cloud, all the bursts of lightning, and then turned and fought against the pull, thrashing, swimming, kicking and punching her way back to the pinker shallows.
L– Cadence wondered what she was supposed to do next. Already, things felt lighter. Nicer. Yet something small remained. Something that definitely had to reach the surface. More out of curiosity than urgency, she surfaced, blinked, peered beyond the trickling love.
Saw a strange yellow unicorn, not exactly a welcome one judging from her momentary pang of displeasure, but one she knew…
One puncture of recognition, one burst of freedom, and the thing that called itself Cadence washed away, got hit by memory after memory, found itself dying for a drink –
Lemon gasped as though surfacing from a pond. She staggered, remembered just in time she was standing up, and merely fell flat on her haunches.
Opposite, Cadence eased herself upright again. Behind her eyes, the storm sagged down to a manageable pink puff, like a bundle of wool.
“Thank you,” she said calmly.
When Lemon got her voice back, she snapped, “Don’t you EVER ask me to do that again… and you will, won’t you?”
For all that she didn’t have much of a heart, Lemon still preferred to believe she had a soul. It was scabbed and past its sell-by-date, but it definitely counted. And high on her list of Things She Should Never Do With It was imperil its very essence. After all, other ponies had no idea where it’d been.
That wasn’t the only reason she shuddered. Lemon was happy being an agent with a boss for a reason. She didn’t like to think of all that influence over the high and mighty. She knew she was low and sleazy, and even she didn’t like the idea of herself being in charge.
Cadence rewarded her with a small smile. “That was a good memory. I’d forgotten about that one.”
“Lovely.” Lemon was too tired and shaken even for sarcasm.
“Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing now. I’ll just have to help Twilight with her princesshood.”
“Yeah,” said Lemon, who’d recovered somewhat, “I’m sure she’ll be real worried over doing the same thing she always does. Now with wings attached.”
“What does that mean?” asked Cadence politely.
Lemon glared at her. If she were anyone else, Lemon might have fallen for it.
“Nothing!” snapped Lemon. Martyr, she thought bitterly.
But she could see genuine love in Cadence’s heart. The storm was gone… for now. Lemon decided not to pick up the subject again. Suddenly, she wanted out.
“Well, if you don’t mind, Your Highness,” she said with a cheek-jabbing grin that left her eyes beached and stranded, “I’ll crash in a hotel tonight, then head home.”
“OK, I’ll crash in the castle tonight, then head home.”
“Lemon Hearts, thank you again, and I want to assure you I do appreciate –”
“Good. Ta ta, Princess.” She was already heading for the double doors.
Tinkling, Cadence’s spell tingled through the air. Apparently, it was a signal because, just then, Captain Flash Sentry came bursting in.
“Did she do anything, Your Highness?” were his first words.
Contempt prompted Lemon to reach up and turn his helmet back-to-front. “You’re earning your bonus this year,” she muttered while he struggled.
“All is fine, Captain,” said Cadence with a giggle.
“But I heard shouting!” he insisted.
“Yes,” said Lemon, “I often just scream ‘NO!’ –” Flash Sentry jumped. “– for no real reason. NO! There, you see? Did it again.”
She got a scowl of doubt for her trouble. “Oh, really?” he said. “I bet that happens a lot.”
“You think that’s rare? Rare is when I scream ‘YES!’”
Whilst Cadence failed to stop herself chortling and Flash Sentry turned red with either embarrassment or indignation, Lemon hurried out.
Only when the other two began talking about Equestria Games security and the double doors slammed shut did Lemon shudder. What she needed now, she decided, was to find a drink. Or a party. Or a drink at a party.
After all, she was technically cleaning up her own mess. Shining and Cadence, Cadence and Shining. To think: she’d believed that was a good idea at the time. Had encouraged it. For a brief moment, had believed love conquered all. Once.
“Martyrs,” muttered Lemon, grimacing. “Celestia almighty, the things I do for love and money…”