Canterlot Cantata

by Ringcaat

Movement 2: Wending a Wedding

(Da capo.)

Interior: Bridal suite. Eve of the wedding of Princess Cadence and Shining Armor.

...yet the temptation was too great, the issue too dire. Against her better judgment, Twilight cracked the door and listened.
“I thought I made it perfectly clear I didn't want you to wear that!” groused Cadence.
“This... was my favorite uncle's,” replied Shining Armor. Twilight peeked in―it was Uncle Strongspark's red service coat and breastplate, complete with the six-pointed star both Twilight and her brother had inherited.
“And, I think I should wear it!”
“Are you disagreeing with me?” Twilight blinked―had Cadence actually said that?
Shining Armor drew himself up, giving Twilight a twinge of sisterly pride. “I... guess I am!” he declared. But then a twinge of something sinister seemed to strike him, and he winced in pain.
“Oh, dear,” snarked Cadence. “Are you getting another one of your headaches?”
Shining Armor cramped and grunted on the floor, and not a moment later Cadence engulfed him in a green magical aura. Twilight could feel the spell's strength―it was formidable, all right. Worthy of a princess, though maybe not a good one! Twilight's eyes stayed on her brother's face. His eyes rattled and he rose in a daze.
“Feeling better?” asked Cadence.
“Mmhm,” Shining Armor replied listlessly. Twilight gasped. Her brother was one of the most willful ponies she knew―but everything about this moment suggested that the will had been sucked right out of him. “She isn't just unpleasant and rude!” she exclaimed. “She's downright evil!
With that, fearing discovery, Twilight fled the bridal suite.
“Twilight!” called her brother behind her. But Twilight wasn't going back. She didn't know what to think, and had to regroup.

She galloped for the guest chambers where her friends were staying. They had to hear about this!
“Who goes there!?” bellowed a sudden voice on high. “Stay indoors, Twilight Sparkle.”
Luna. Princess Luna. Twilight spun about to behold her watching from a towering spire. Twilight's mind swam, intentions scrambled. She wanted to see her friends, but how could she ignore a reigning princess of Equestria?
In the end, her dutiful side won out. “...What was that, Princess Luna?”


MOVEMENT 2: Wending a Wedding


Luna's expression was strident. “I warned you to stay indoors, Twilight Sparkle. Dire things are afoot tonight.”
Twilight stumbled to a halt at the foot of the tower. She cast a longing glance back to the open, glowing doors where her friends could surely be found... but for now, Luna was more important.
“What things? Isn't there a protection spell over the whole city?”
“Yes,” said Luna, “but we are not the only wielders of magic in this world, Twilight Sparkle. Were a single shield sufficient to secure us from all danger, our troubles would be mild indeed.”
The night princess's royal voice was forceful, even employed calmly at a distance. Twilight was getting worried their conversation would alert Cadence to her feelings, so she put her forehooves on the tower door. Celestia herself had kept watch from this tower during the day... but for what?
“Will you let me inside, your highness? I feel like we should talk.”
The princess seemed surprised. “In the tower?”
“Well, you did say I should stay indoors....”
The door creaked open with a shimmer of magic. When Twilight walked inside, it snapped shut. Within sat barrels, reams of cloth, carpentry tools, and lumber―this tower was stocked for a siege!
A winding staircase took Twilight up from the clutter. In her ascent, she passed smaller floors filled with papers and charts and maps of places she recognized vaguely from her readings... but their forms looked somehow different here. These were military maps, she realized.
“Well met, Twilight Sparkle,” said Luna suddenly from five steps up. Twilight leapt and stumbled down a few stairs before catching herself.
“Oooph!! I... I beg your pardon,” she managed. “But you startled me! And why do you keep saying my name in every sentence?”
Luna curled a wing back. “Is it not portentous?”
“Um... well, I guess so, if that's what you're going for.”
Luna shuffled her front feet back so that all four were on the same stair. “Does it upset you when I address you by name, Twil―” But she cut herself off.
Twilight bowed, smiling a little. “Every fifth or sixth sentence would be fine, princess.”
Luna regained her composure with a sweep of her wings. “Very well. Welcome to the High Watchtower, Tw―my friend.”
Twilight resumed her upward walk, and Luna stepped backward up the stairs obligingly as she did, two legs at a time. “Thank you! I saw Princess Celestia watching from the roof during the day... can you tell me what she was watching for?”
“That I cannot,” said Luna.
“You can't? Is it a secret?”
“It is a secret of state when threats manifest against Equestria's capitol. The fact of the threat cannot be disguised, but its nature is not for me to divulge without my sister's permission.”
“I see. Well, maybe we should ask her permission, then. Because I feel like I know something she doesn't, and I want to be part of the solution.” Twilight internally congratulated herself for how calmly she was handling the situation.
Luna stopped hoisting herself up the stairs. “What information can you offer?”
Twilight narrowed her eyes. “It's Princess Cadence. What would you say, Princess, if I told you that I'd just seen her bewitching my brother?”
Luna sat wide-eyed for a moment. Then she concentrated for a split second and their surroundings went white. Twilight found herself teleported to what must be the top of the tower, the sprawl of Canterlot Castle and the mountain's edge visible before them. In other directions, the city of Canterlot sat still under tense cover of evening, and everywhere the night sky was pink, not black, thanks to Shining Armor's magical dome.
“Good Element of Magic,” intoned Luna. “The pinnacle of the High Watchtower is the proper place for high considerations. Art thou accusing our―I mean, are you accusing our beloved Princess Mi Amore Cadenza of treason?”
“Treason?” Twilight hadn't thought of it so starkly. “I―no, I just think she's bad for him! She's using him somehow.”
The night princess loomed close, somehow darkening more of Twilight's field of vision than her body had any right to. “And you feel that 'using' the captain of the royal guard badly is not treasonous?”
“Um... well, I hadn't thought of it that way...”
“What manner of bewitchment have you witnessed, Twilight Sparkle?!” Her question asked, Luna drew back a smidgeon, smiling sheepishly. “Did I wait long enough that time?”
“Er...” Twilight screwed a forehoof around in her ear as if to clean it. “I'll tell you exactly what happened, Your Highness. I was speaking with my brother when Princess Cadence took him behind a closed door, and I went to listen. They―”
“You would eavesdrop on an Equestrian princess?!?” roared Luna, unfurling shadows from her wings.
“I―well, I was suspicious! She'd been acting strange all day!”
“We are royal and eternal! Do we not enjoy the privilege of oddity?” bristled Luna.
“Well... it wasn't that kind of strange. It wasn't like, eccentric strange. It was more, she'd forgotten who she was supposed to be, strange.”
Luna grew still. “Go on.”
“Right. They had an argument over what Shining Armor should wear, and he suddenly gasped in pain. He fell to his knees, and Cadence... cast some kind of spell that surrounded his head with a green aura, and made his eyes rattle! It felt like a progressive enchantment. She said something about him feeling headaches and how she'd make him feel better.”
Luna shifted her pose austerely, one hind leg askew. “Then shall we not conclude that she was indeed soothing his pain? Our good captain has been maintaining his shield for our entire capitol, and this effort has kindled migraine headaches.”
“Well... ” Twilight hadn't really tried to put a legitimate face on what she'd witnessed, since it had felt so utterly wrong. She thought back. “But princess! His eyes didn't rattle until after she cast her spell!”
Luna was still. “Are you sure of this, Twilight Sparkle?”
“Positive. I remember it clearly.”
“It is still probable that she was correcting his infirmity. Healing spells can themselves be disorienting. Still, I will relay what you have reported to my sister, that we might leave this matter to her judgment. I will be just a minute.”
Luna closed her eyes and lifted her head, no doubt speaking with Celestia at a distance. Twilight nodded, her nerves tense. She was cooling down in the night air, the amazing architecture of Canterlot around her on all sides. And she was starting to doubt her instinctive reaction. Could Cadence really have been helping her brother? It hadn't just been the spell that put Twilight on edge―it was Cadence's attitude! The very idea of Shining Armor arguing back had seemed to offend her, and his headache had come at an awfully convenient moment....
“Twilight Sparkle. Oh―it's acceptable to use your name now, is it not? I reason that my telepathic conversation with my sister reset the counter, as it were.”
Twilight nodded. “What did she say?”
“Princess Celestia wishes to have audience with you immediately.” Luna inclined her great, midnight blue head. “Art thee amenable? Sorry, are you? Are you amenable?”
“I'm amenable,” said Twilight.
“In that case, good luck!” Luna clapped her wings, and Twilight again felt the rush of unexpected teleportation. When her environment stabilized, she was standing before a concerned Princess Celestia in her firelit bedchamber.

\\ o/` \\

“Princess.” Twilight lowered herself to the floor.
“My student.” Celestia's muzzle felt nourishing and silky against her cheek.
Twilight looked up at her mentor. “I'm sorry to have disturbed you.”
“Not at all, Twilight,” said Celestia. “Luna has told me everything you told her. Since your concerns are genuine, you have no need to apologize. In fact, I'm glad that you chose to bring this matter up privately, rather than confronting Cadence directly.”
This warmed Twilight's heart. “Well, it wasn't like I was going to just storm into rehearsal and start calling her 'evil'.” At least, that hadn't been her plan for more than about sixty seconds.
Celestia brought her face close... so close that Twilight thought she might touch it again to her own. But the princess stopped, the curves of her cheek and nose catching the pink moonlight through a stained window.
“Twilight... it occurs to me that there are certain lessons about love you have yet to learn,” said the princess.
Twilight blinked. What was Celestia trying to say? “Well... of course! I mean, I should hope so. I don't think I've ever even been in love!”
Celestia's eyes were cloudy one moment and clear the next. “Precisely. You are at a wedding, Twilight... the supreme public expression of love, a subject on which you are no expert. I would hope, my pupil, that in such a situation you would forbear from trying to shape the course of events... unless it were absolutely necessary.”
Twilight was lost for words. “Uh―but I... I mean, I realize that I'm...”
But Celestia softened and her knowing smile returned. “What you are not is a creature of instinct, Twilight Sparkle. I mean you no disrespect when I say that any of your friends would find it easier, and more fruitful, to follow their instincts than you.”
This was dismaying. “So you think I'm wrong?”
“I hope you are, my faithful one! For the sake of all. But please, Twilight, don't be upset.” Kneeling, Celestia stroked a wing against Twilight's shoulder. “I mean only that you're a creature of intellect. You thrive on reason and procedure... yet here, now, you find yourself making an important judgment based chiefly on your instincts. It must feel confusing.”
“It does,” admitted Twilight. “It really does! My friends... they wouldn't even take me seriously when I told them how Cadence was behaving. It was... it was like that time when I was so scared you were going to send me back to magic kindergarten if I didn't send you a report on time, and they wouldn't believe me!”
“And Twilight. Who was right on that occasion?” Celestia held her neck low to meet Twilight's eyes.
“They were,” Twilight whispered. “But... but just the same, they were wrong not to take me seriously!”
“Indeed,” replied Celestia. “And that, Twilight Sparkle,” is the only reason I haven't yet dismissed you with a laugh and a suggestion to relax and enjoy yourself. As much as the notion tempts me.”
Twilight blinked, as did the princess. But she had to explain herself. “Princess... I know I don't know much about love. I know it's one of those things you can't learn properly out of a book. But... this isn't about love! It's about... just basic decency. Princess Cadence isn't acting like a good bride ought to act, or... or a good anyone, for that matter!”
Celestia positioned her eyes mere inches from Twilight's. “Can you begin to imagine the way she feels?” she asked. “About to commit herself fully to another? To bring a new family―yours―into the royal fold? Can you really claim to comprehend the weight of that decision... and on top of it, all the nits and trimmings of organizing a major event?”
“Listen to me, Twilight! The more you distrust her, the more reason you give her to second-guess herself for making you royal!”
This hit Twilight hard. “Wait. ...For what?”
Celestia drew back. “Do you mean to say it hasn't crossed your mind?”
But Twilight could only stare, and repeat: “Royal?”
The princess lidded her eyes. “In the days before Equestria, the sister of a prince was typically styled 'princess' herself. In this age, royal siblings by marriage are more often granted noble titles. …I had meant to discuss with you what yours would be.”
This new angle flustered Twilight. “A title? Is that really... I mean, I'm already your personal student!”
“And for that reason,” said Celestia, “I was inclined toward the simple 'Lady'. In some quarters, you are already referred to as Lady Twilight Sparkle. Would you care to make it official?”
“All I want is for the right thing to happen!” erupted Twilight. “I just want my brother to be happy! I want him to see that he's being mistreated!”
Princess Celestia sat on the floor opposite Twilight. The fire behind her revealed little of her face, but even as she spoke, the princess's horn blazed up and lit the span between them. “Then you may be about to learn one of those lessons I mentioned. Even if you are right about Princess Cadence, and her ill temper truly is more than a temporary flare born from stress... you'll most likely never get your brother to see it.”
“But why?”
“Because love, once built, does not die easily.” Celestia closed her eyes for a moment and inclined her head. “It lingers and burns on, even after relations have gone sour. It takes tremendous force to break a truly strong bond. If Shining Armor even once knew true bliss in the presence of Mi Amore Cadenza, he will strive forever to regain that moment. Harsh words and subtle actions won't even come close to ending his love.”
“But it's... it's not safe for him!!” yelled Twilight, rising. “I'm scared for him! I mean, it's... it's his life, and if he wants to make a big mistake... I can't stop him, so long as he knows what he's doing.... But―but he doesn't, Princess. He doesn't know! It's like... I remember Cadence, and this isn't... this isn't even her!”
Celestia opened her mouth again, but froze on the cusp of speech. Twilight could sense something going through her head as she drew back. “Twilight... let's make the issue very clear. Are you, in fact, literally saying that you believe... that the Princess Mi Amore Cadenza currently residing in the bridal suite... is not the same pony as the Cadence you and I once knew?”
The princess's sudden urgent tone frightened Twilight on a new level. “Um... well, she's―I don't know! I only meant that she wasn't acting like herself... but are you saying that she could be an imposter?
“Are you?” demanded Celestia, straightening and standing tall.
“I don't know!” cried Twilight. “Possibly! But who has the magic to impersonate a princess??”
For several seconds, Celestia was silent. And then:
“Twilight. What I am about to say is meant for your ears only, and the ears of one other: your brother. He doesn't know the nature of the threat against Canterlot any more than you do, because he hasn't needed to know. Only a few do know―my sister, my chancellor, a foreign ambassador.”
So the mysterious threat against Canterlot was somehow tied up in this. “Princess?”
“My faithful student. Do you recall from your studies of exotic magical creatures... what a changeling is?”
Twilight's brain flailed... and then she realized. Her heart felt like stone. “Yes. I do.”
“The land of the changelings and their cousins, the other Tricky Folk, is several kingdoms distant from Equestria,” Celestia explained. “Yet they have been gathering in our mountains. Some forty miles northeast of Canterlot, a horde has been gathering, and I have reason to believe they are led by a queen. Their intentions I don't know.”
Twilight fell to her haunches. “Are you saying that... Princess Cadence... could be a changeling?”
The glow of Celestia's horn dimmed as she looked away. “She would have to be their queen, or another nearly as powerful. It seems quite unlikely, Twilight. In all likelihood... what you're experiencing is the combination of a foalhood friend who changed over time, the stresses of a wedding weighing upon her, and the ordinary protective feelings you have toward your brother... not to mention your dismay at not receiving advance notice. This situation is naturally confusing for you, my beloved student... and I really shouldn't be surprised that you're acting as you are. Yet, on the chance... the slim chance....” She turned away and shut her eyes.
“What should we do?” asked Twilight. “Should we tell my friends about this?”
Celestia's eyes opened narrowly. “No... your friends will not adopt an even-hoofed point of view. They have been appointed as Mi Amore Cadenza's new bridesmaids. Apparently her previous bridesmaids were hungry only for fame, and she dismissed them.”
Twilight gasped. “Her new bridesmaids!?”
Celestia nodded. “They will be all too willing to justify her misbehavior. No, Twilight. Go directly to Shining Armor. Tell him what you've told me, and tell him that the changelings have been gathering. Let him draw his own conclusions. He has known Cadence more intimately than any of us, and if she is being impersonated, he will be most likely to know.”
“But Princess, what about the bond you mentioned? The bond that doesn't break?”
Celestia lifted her head. “If Shining Armor comes to believe this is not the true Cadence, that bond will be irrelevant. He is the Captain of my Guard, Twilight... he may be young and even a little foolish, but he will not trifle with the safety of our capitol. If he suspects, he is to come to me. Do you understand, Twilight?”
“Yes. I understand.”
“Then go to him. And if your brother says that your fears are unfounded, then I beg you... please. Trust him. Trust also in the instincts of your friends, and let your fears go, if you possibly can.”
Twilight wanted to agree to this, but she wasn't entirely sure she knew how to let her fears go. “I'll talk to him,” she promised.
Celestia went to sit by the fire, her horn dark and her head low. “I'm sorry if I come across as stern,” she confided. “I only want to help Cadence's dreams come true... without hurting yours.”
“I understand,” said Twilight. She waited half a minute for a response... and when none came, she slipped away.

\\ o/` \\

It was just as well Celestia hadn't teleported Twilight straight to her brother. For one thing, such an abrupt appearance might startle him, which wouldn't mesh well with her task of convincing him that something was wrong. For another thing, Twilight wanted to get her thoughts in order before attempting what might be one of the most difficult and important conversations of her life. She therefore found her way out of the castle and headed for the guest cottage where she and Spike were staying.
Each passing minute felt like another chance lost, but Twilight knew it didn't really matter when she confronted Shining Armor so long as it was before the next morning's rehearsal. There weren't many ponies out and about, but Twilight avoided those she saw. Her thoughts swirled as she tried to reconcile what she'd witnessed of Mi Amore Cadenza that day with what she remembered from her foalhood. What kind of life could change such sweetness into callous cruelty, and in so few years? Twilight found herself actually hoping that Cadence was a changeling, rather than have to grapple with such a personal tragedy.
She trotted down to the guest cottage and was somewhat surprised to hear Spike's voice mumbling from within. She'd expected him to be there, but who was he talking to?
“...So banker draws on a four... unless the player's third card is less than two, or more than seven. But what if the player has no third card? Then... the bank stands. No, on a four they draw, but on a six they―”
Twilight peeked inside. “Spike? Is there somepony in there with you?”
“Gaah!!” Spike jerked reflexively, hurling dozens of cards into the air. There was no one else there. He whirled around, looking upset and embarrassed at once. “Twilight! You startled me!!”
“Sorry, Spike. What are you doing in here?”
He held up a slim leather-bound book. “What do you think I'm doing? I'm learning how to play Bachelor!”
Twilight opened her mouth, but no words found their way.
Spike stared back defensively. “You know! Bachelor? Game of chance where the players bet on which hand of cards'll end up closer to nine?”
Twilight blinked, and a few seconds later, the sweet juice of elocution returned to her lips. “Baccarat, Spike! You're thinking of baccarat! A bachelor is a single male!”
Spike's embarrassment visibly compounded, and he twiddled the book between his fingers. “Bachelor isn't a card game?”
“No, Spike. Shining Armor is a bachelor... for one more day!”
Spike glanced at the book again before setting it on the table. “No wonder they kept spelling it so weird. Well, that's just great!” He pounded the table, sending more cards airborne. “I spent hours getting this book from the royal library and tracking down a palace steward so I could get the cards! What am I going to do with forty-eight decks of cards??” He gestured to a precarious stack in the corner.
Twilight sighed. “We have bigger problems, Spike. I've been talking to the princesses, and it turns out that Princess Cadence may actually be... er...” She paused. Celestia had said the secret was for her and Shining Armor only, hadn't she?
“May be what?” asked Spike, clambering over.
Twilight weighed how much it was okay to tell her assistant. “...May be something other than what she seems. She may be an imposter, Spike!”
He drew in sudden breath. “Really? You mean a fake?”
“That's right.” She walked briskly inside and started gathering up spilled cards with her magic. “I'd thought she was a changed pony. But maybe... maybe she's not! Maybe she's just not here! Come to think of it, she didn't seem to remember me at all when I greeted her! She didn't even recognize our 'Sunshine, Sunshine' dance!”
“Gosh!” Spike stood aside to let Twilight do the work of cleaning up. “Do you suppose the real Cadence got kidnapped?”
“That could very well be, Spike. I certainly hope she's all right.”
“But who could do that to a princess? For that matter―who would want to?!”
Twilight didn't like keeping things from her number one assistant, but she had to. “I don't know, Spike. I mean, the princesses had some ideas, but... well, anyone who would kidnap someone on the verge on their wedding must be a pretty horrible person!” Twilight felt a sudden spasm, as if she'd been struck by an otherworldly bolt of irony... but she shook it off. “In any case, we need to work out whether the Cadence about to marry my brother is really who she says she is. And that's why I came to you! Unlike my pony friends, you actually knew her!”
“Well, kinda,” said Spike. “I was pretty young when she stopped foalsitting you.”
“But she stayed in touch! For a while, anyway. I know you have memories of her, Spike.”
Spike sat down on a hassock. “Yeah, I guess. She was sweet.”
“That she was! But more specifically, what was she like? What do you remember about Cadence that could never change?”
“She gave me candy,” said Spike, reminiscing with his hands on his belly.
Twilight lowered her eyebrows and shot Spike a dim look. “Is that how you remember Cadence? As a candy dispenser?”
Spike barely paid attention, his pupils shaped like yellow hearts. “Cherry sours... licorice pops... powder rocks... those little triangular mint things... ”
“I can't believe it,” said Twilight. “She wasn't supposed to be giving you anything! You were supposed to be on a diet!”
“Well, it wasn't like she gave me gems!” protested Spike. “Except that one time. Mmmm... yellow citrine....”
“Enough, Spike. Do you remember anything else about Cadence? Anything that might give us a clue if this is really her?”
The dragon let his hands fall to his sides. Suddenly, the room seemed very bleak and still.
“Well, I mean... if the fact she used to be nice, and now she's not, isn't enough... then I don't know what is,” said Spike.
“You may have a point,” Twilight conceded.
“I mean, if that can change, what can't?
“Abilities! Do you remember how she to used to spread love, everywhere she went?”
“Kind of? Not really.”
“Not really?!”
He waved his hands. “I was, like, six the last time we saw her! And that was just for a few minutes!”
“Why would she come over for just a few minutes?”
“I think she was―” Spike gasped, and then rasped: “She was visiting your brother.”
Twilight felt her mouth hanging open; it took an effort to close it. “They were dating even back then?”
“I remember her saying she liked Shiny and she wanted to... I don't know, get to know him better?”
“And I didn't even realize,” said Twilight, half to herself. “Well, my brother can ask her questions, then. Things she should know the answer to!”
“If he's willing to be sensible about it,” Spike pointed out.
“Right. But what if he's not? I still need to know, Spike! What can I ask her that an imposter wouldn't know?”
“You could... you could ask her what kind of gem she gave me that one time. It was a lemon yellow citrine.”
“She'll say she doesn't remember! And maybe she really won't! If I can forget that she was already dating my brother when you were six, who's to say what she might have forgotten!?”
“I don't know, Twilight! Isn't there anything that stays the same about a person when they grow up??”
“Well, sure! ...Most things. But... maybe sometimes, there isn't.” Twilight sat down, dispirited.
Spike straightened up the pile of cards and sat down with her. They were silent for a minute. Twilight couldn't decide whether the moment felt timeless, or whether every heartbeat felt like a distant deluge.
“Twilight?” asked Spike eventually. “Am I a bachelor?”
Leave it to Spike to lighten the mood. “No, Spike. You're too young to be a bachelor.”
“That's... that's kind of what I thought.” A few moments later, he produced another question. “Twilight? Why does anyone ever get married?”
“I just don't get it. It's like... you're promising to be with them forever, right? But if people can change... if there's nothing about a person that can't change... then why would you want to make that promise? What if... whatever you love about them changes? Then you're stuck with someone that you don't love!”
Wow. So much for her assistant being a mood-lightener. “I... Spike, you're asking the wrong unicorn. What do I know about love?”
“So... you've never been in love?” Spike seemed downright nervous about asking.
Twilight had to reflect. “No... I guess I haven't. I mean... I think I love Celestia. But...”
Spike shifted forward. “You love Celestia?
“As a mentor, Spike! As... as someone to look up to. I...” She sighed. “I may understand a little, tiny sliver of what love is. I... I've felt love. But I've never been in love,” she decided.
“Then if neither of us really understands love... how are we supposed to know if your brother's doing the right thing?” asked Spike.
Twilight didn't answer for some time.
“Just a little while ago,” she murmured, “I would have said it was up to him. That he could marry whomever he wants, even if she's a total shrew! Just so long as she's not an imposter.”
“But now?” prodded Spike.
“But now... I know that one way or another, this isn't the Cadence he fell in love with. She can't be! Either she's been replaced by someone else, or she's changed into someone else. I just have to make him see.” Stirred by emotions she didn't fully recognize, Twilight stood. “Thanks for your help, Spike. If you'll excuse me.”
Spike stood to the side, looking worried, and Twilight turned and left the cottage.

\\ o/` \\

There were guards about, but they either delivered soft greetings or passed by with cursory acknowledgment. It felt strange, just as it had when she'd broken into the Canterlot Library, to think that she wasn't actually breaking any rules. Twilight felt like an enemy of the state.
It was strange... but despite the darkness of the night, and despite all her concerns about her brother's future and the safety of the realm... what scared Twilight most was the possibility that Cadence might appear suddenly, just like she'd been doing all day. Twilight simply wasn't ready for that conversation. As she made her way to the guard barracks, she feared seeing that pink face around every corner. She even kept herself from saying the name Cadence under her breath, just in case the suspect princess could somehow hear.
But she made it unaccosted to the barracks where her brother spent his nights.
Twilight didn't know whether he would be awake, but if he could sleep before midnight on the eve of his wedding, with a threat against his city at large... well, she'd be jealous, to say the least. She asked the guard on duty whether she might see her brother in private, and sure enough, her request was granted. He hadn't even gone to bed yet.
Shining Armor's shining armor lay at the foot of his bed. His hair was combed straight with no sign of his ordinarily wild locks. His eyelids seemed heavy, as did his head, but the sight of his sister enabled him to muster up energy. “Hi, Twilie,” he said, quick to make eye contact. “I'm glad you came back! I was worried when you ran off earlier.”
Twilight wanted to do nothing but nuzzle and comfort him, but she had a job to do. “Sorry about that. I have a confession, big brother.”
“What's that?”
“I... I eavesdropped on you and Cadence, when she pulled you into the bedroom. I watched through a crack in the door.”
His eyebrows were high, as was the surprise in his voice. “What? But why?! That conversation was private, Twilie.”
“And our conversation was private! Before she interrupted it! It felt only fair, and besides... I was worried about you.”
“Worried? But Twilie―tomorrow's going to be the greatest day of my life!”
Twilight felt a wave of sickness as she looked her brother over. “Then why don't you look happy?” It was true―he was alert but weary, strained and sleepy-looking. He didn't seem unhappy, but neither did he look like a happy groom about to marry his true love.
“I guess it's this threat against the city,” he finally said. “I've been so busy keeping up the protection spell that I haven't had any time to help Cadence plan the wedding! So she's had to make all the decisions and do all the planning, and it's stressing her out.”
Twilight was sympathetic. “Listen, big brother... I don't think the way your bride-to-be is acting is just stress. I think it's something more!”
His eyebrows lowered. “What do you mean?”
Twilight spoke carefully. “I mean that... I don't think this is the mare you fell in love with.”
Now his blue eyebrows just looked weird. “Not... not the mare I... I don't get it, Twilie.”
“She's not Cadence! Not as we used to know her, anyway. She's different now, and she may not even be the same pony at all!”
“Different how? What are you talking about?”
Twilight drew a huge breath. “Okay. Case in point number one. When I first saw her, I tried to do the old 'Sunshine, Sunshine' dance with her. She didn't seem to even know who I was, let alone remember the dance! When I said 'It's me, Twilight Sparkle', she blew me off. And then a few seconds later, when you were holding her, she shot me an evil grin! I did not imagine it! Point two. Applejack created a great new hors d'oeuvre for her, and she tried one and said she liked, it, but then when Applejack gave her a bag to munch on? She threw it straight in the trash!” Shining Armor's brows were getting lower and lower, his attitude shifting from receptive to hostile, but Twilight persisted. “Point three. Rarity put all this work into a wedding dress for her, but she just stood there coldly and said “...more beading and a longer train.” And her bridemaids loved the dresses Rarity made, but she told Rarity to make them a different color anyway! Point four. She told Pinkie Pie the reception she'd planned was worthy of a six-year-old's birthday party! And it wasn't a compliment! Point five! She yelled at one of Fluttershy's birds for singing off key! And as if all that wasn't enough... she barged in when I was talking to you, demanded your attention, argued with you about Uncle Strongspark's coat, and then―” She waved her forelegs wildly. “While I was watching through the door, she cast a spell on you! And yes, I know Luna said you've been having migraines and she was only trying to help, but it seemed like she was trying to shut you up and win the argument! The spell made your eyes go funny like a goofy mailmare we have back home. It didn't feel like a healing spell to me!”
“Are you kidding me, Twilight? You have a laundry list against my fiancée?”
“It's... but... this isn't your fiancée, Shining Armor! You wouldn't have fallen in love with this Cadence! This is someone else!”
“Now you're just being ridiculous! Who else could it be?”
Twilight stepped closer, just inches from her brother. She was shaking with the fear of not getting through. “I wondered that too... and then Princess Celestia told me. She never let you know just what you're protecting the city against, did she?”
“She said I didn't have to know.”
“That was then. This is now. Big brother... do you know what a changeling is?”
He was about to answer, but his eyes got bigger and his neck got stiffer, and he pulled up. “No. No!”
“Yes! Cadence could very well be a changeling! Celestia said a horde is gathering in the mountains, as if they're waiting to strike!”
“But...” He lowered his head and wiped away a tear. “But I thought they were just fairy tales!”
“I thought so too, but you never really know. True, Celestia thinks it's unlikely that Cadence is a changeling, but to me, it all fits. The imposter would have sneaked in a few weeks or months ago, snatched the real Princess Cadence, and put her somewhere where it could draw from her emotional pool! Since you're head over hocks in love, it figured you wouldn't put things together, but I have a fresh perspective, and she's not like I remember her! She doesn't have the same facial expressions, she doesn't treat ponies the same way... her voice doesn't even have the right... the right cadence!”
“I don't know, Twilie. It's true, she's been acting funny, but this feels like one of your wild goose chases. You remember how stressed you used to get over your homework?”
“Yes... and you were a saint to calm me down so often. But this isn't that! This time... I know what I'm feeling.”
Twilight shut her eyes over her nascent tears and found herself starting to sing:

“You think that I'm mistaken
When I say you've been taken
By somepony who's got it in for you.

But I swear I've seen the signs,
And I've read between the lines:
This mare is not the Cadence we both knew!

She's neither kind nor caring;
I'm giving you my guarantee!

“But how can I believe you?” protested Shining Armor.

“Because you're my Big Brother... Best Friend Forever!” replied Twilight.
Like two peas in a pod, we did everything together.
I never told a single lie!

“(Best friend forever,)” an ethereal counterpoint seemed to echo.

“How could I even think to try?” sang Twilight.

“(We did everything together!)” replied the ineffable harmony.

We shared our childhood...
We shared our youth...
Wouldn't you know if I weren't telling you... the honest truth?

Twilight stood breathing hard, looking for some sign of comprehension in her brother. To her surprise, he sang back to her:

You're my Kid Sister... Best Friend Forever!
And it's true that you've always been exceptionally clever.

Twilight drew close. “I know the stakes are high, so please look me in the eye...

She saw his shoulders tense. He crouched slightly, eye-level with Twilight, and stared.

Twilight sang: “If you marry her, you'll regret it... forever.

His chin wavered. “Forever?”

Forever!” warbled Twilight, carrying the note into the reaches of urgency.

Shining Armor's eyes squinched tight. Tears flowed. Abruptly, he drew back his sternum, tightened his shoulders, and cried out in anguish. Little sizzling blue curls flew from his horn, and Twilight hastened to shield herself.
“Big brother?!” she squeaked.
“I was going to be happy, Twilight! I was so close to being happy!!” Shining Armor let his head fall, blue mane flopping down.
“Then... then you believe me?”
“I trust you, Twilie. I know you wouldn't steer me wrong on something like this. And... I mean, it's true... she isn't the way she used to be. But I thought it was just nerves...”
“The spell she cast notwithstanding, I'm pretty sure nerves can't account for all these changes. But what do you mean, you were so close to being happy? Aren't you already happy? As Captain of the Guard?”
He whickered, lifting his head. “I know I always dreamed of being the Captain of the Guard. Just joining the guard in the first place was amazing. But leading... it's a lot on my back, Twilie.”
“You can handle it!” said Twilight cheerfully. “You have a great back.”
“You know, Celestia only promoted me because she likes you so much.” He peered. “Did you know that?”
Twilight hadn't. Was it true? She had no idea. “I... are you sure?”
“Of course I'm sure.” Shining Armor sat, deflated. “I wasn't the best in the company, let alone in the whole battalion. There were Frostcap... Short Sward... Candela... I mean, I had spirit and ethics and I work hard, but Captain? I just haven't earned it. I get distracted too easily. I make mistakes.”
“Everypony makes mistakes.” Twilight sat close, wishing she could nuzzle her brother but knowing he wasn't ready. “Maybe Celestia saw something in you that you didn't.”
“Maybe.” He obviously didn't believe it. “But I think it's pretty clear she saw how great you were at magic and decided I must be just as great at military leadership. Or maybe she just wanted to set you up with a high-ranking brother.”
Twilight made a mental note to ask Celestia about this. But for now, Cadence was the top priority. “Be that as it may... you can still be happy, even if the real Cadence doesn't turn up. Don't you enjoy your work?”
He sighed again. “Yeah... but it's only part of the dream, Twilie. It's only ever just been part of the dream.”
Now Twilight leaned forward and nuzzled Shining Armor. “I'm sorry, BBBFF. I don't know what to say.”
He didn't say anything. He just shuddered and stayed by his sister for some time, until eventually he stood up. “We have to find out if she really is a changeling,” he said weakly. “Does Celestia have a plan?”
“You should go to her and tell her you think it could be true.”
“All right. Stay here until I come back, Twilight. I'll have the guards keep you safe, just in case.”
Twilight nodded. “Okay. See you soon.”
Shining Armor mumbled to the guards on his way out. Twilight sat down and tried to make herself comfortable. The worst was probably over... she'd done her duty, and now the truth would come out. Celestia would make sure everything would turn out all right, somehow. And if Cadence tried to get back at Twilight, at least the guards would warn her before she could―
“Were you just talking about me?!”
Twilight whipped around to find Princess Mi Amore Cadenza standing behind her. The connecting door to the guard barracks was open, no guards to be seen.
How had she--?
A plethora of half-baked spell ideas, offensive and defensive, sped through Twilight's mind. But how could she think of defeating a princess? ...Wait, she thought. Cadence didn't necessarily know that Twilight suspected. She might be hostile, but they were still both on the same side for now. Still allegedly both good ponies.
“I... yes, we were.”
The pink menace stepped forward, her eyes growing pointy―Twilight was attuned now to that kind of eye-related detail. “And what, exactly, were you saying?”
Her voice was so haughty! Twilight tried to imagine speaking in a haughtier voice, and couldn't. “We were talking about his life together with you! How you're going to be so happy, and what plans you've made...”
“Did he seem troubled by anything?” asked Cadence.
“Uh... no, not really. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” She turned her head to one side. “It's just that, on my way in, I saw him running for the palace! I asked him to stop and tell me what was wrong, but he wouldn't!”
Twilight stood in shock. She deliberately closed her mouth.
“What kind of a bridegroom refuses to speak with his bride on the night before their wedding?!”
Twilight knew she had to answer, but had no idea what to say. “I don't know.”
“You don't know?” Cadence turned on her and stepped closer, neck outstretched and crown gleaming. “Do you mean to say you were in conversation with my fiancé, and yet have no idea what could have upset him?”
Twilight stepped back. Where were the guards? “I guess...” She scrambled for an excuse. “He said he had a surprise for you, and he went to run and get it! That's probably why he didn't stop―he didn't want to spoil the surprise!”
Cadence's eyebrows spread and her face grew furious. “That is absurd! He was upset!! You are telling LIES!”
Flashes of pink-white magical fire sizzled from her horn; more came from the floor where she stamped her hooves. Twilight readied a shield spell and stumbled back. “What are you doing?!”
“YOU have turned him AGAINST ME!!” accused Cadence.
“I―and what if I did?!” retorted Twilight, shifting to an aggressive stance.
The princess was only startled for a split second. “If you did, you'll regret it!!” she yelled.
The need to change tracks surfaced in Twilight, and so before she could think it through, she'd asked: “Do you remember me?!”
“Do I WHAT?”
“Do. You. Remember me! From when I was a foal, and you were growing up?”
“Of course I do! What does that have to do with anything, you deceitful―”
“Prove it!” demanded Twilight, standing firm.
“What?! What are you on about?”
“Prove that you remember me! Tell me something we did when I was little.”
More sparks flew, but Twilight ignored them. “Why should I?! What does it matter to me what you think of me?”
“Of course it matters! You're marrying my brother! And you used to be my favorite foalsitter!”
There was a look of surprise. In the next moment, the pink alicorn raged on, stamping and shouting about Twilight's insolence. But that look. That momentary baffled look in the instant after Twilight had identified their relationship―sitter and sittee. Cadence hadn't known. She hadn't even remembered that.
“You will tell me what you said to Shining Armor,” blustered Cadence, “and you will tell me now!
There was no reason for any further conversation. No reason to bring up lemon yellow citrines. Cadence was an imposter. It was that simple.
“I told him that I don't like the way you were acting today,” said Twilight with an edge in her voice. “You were treating everyone like you're the queen of the world and acting like a shrew! I was telling my brother that if I were him, I'd think twice about marrying you!!” She recalled something she'd read in How to Convince Others of Anything, Anywhere, Anytime―lying was much easier to do convincingly if you based it on truth.
“You dared spread such gossip about me?? Queen of the world? I am a princess of Equestria!!” Cadence, or Not-Cadence, spread her wings and raised her head so imperiously that Twilight feared she was about to strike.
“You're right, you're right,” she backpedaled, while at the same time she physically backpedaled toward the door. “I was being disrespectful―I'm sorry. Sorry! I can go tell Shining Armor to forget it all, if you want―I'll make it all better....”
“That will not be necessary.” Not-Cadence's anger was already dying down. “You have damaged our relationship enough already. But you will stay out of the way until our wedding is complete. Is that understood?”
Twilight wondered how she was supposed to stay out of the way as the Best Mare. But she nodded and kept backing away. “I will! I will.”
“In that case, you are forgiven―for now.” Not-Cadence marched past Twilight toward the door. “I must seek out my love and console him. Pray that you have not done any damage that can't be undone.” This was punctuated by an unsettling backward stare.
Twilight nodded frenetically. “Yep! Sure. I'll pray!” Was she, or anyone else, supposed to seriously believe Not-Cadence was a good pony after a display like this?
The crowned head slowly, suspiciously pulled away from Twilight, and at last, Not-Cadence stepped through the door and flew majestically away. The guards timidly peered in from either side, retaking their posts.
It turned out they'd been afraid of Cadence as well―perhaps she'd been treating them to similarly sociopathic behavior over the last few weeks. Twilight had to wonder whether anyone would have discovered the truth in time if this imposter had only been a bit more circumspect. The guards did want to make sure Twilight was all right, however.
“I'm unharmed,” she told them. “But I have to get to Celestia.”

\\ o/` \\

The guards were glad to escort Twilight back to the palace and up to Celestia's chambers. They didn't even quail at Twilight's request to keep a wary eye out for “Cadence”. Apparently the idea that Mi Amore Cadzena was less than benevolent was all too easy for Shining Armor's colleagues to believe.
Everyone was on edge, which meant a couple of false scares along the way. The constant recoloration of the pink dome made it feel like something was always moving at the edge of one's vision―it made Twilight all the more thankful for the normal tranquility of Luna's night sky. But they reached Celestia―not in her personal suite, but in the war chamber. She was conferring there with Luna and Shining Armor.
Celestia was speaking as Twilight entered. “...that someday she'll be able to laugh at the idea that we were scheming to contain her on the night before her nuptials?” she asked Luna.
Luna frowned, and Shining Armor, who hadn't yet seen Twilight, responded: “There aren't going to be any nuptials. I'm sorry, Your Highness―the wedding's off!”
“I'm sorry,” said Celestia. “Somehow, I can't seem―”
“Hark, sister,” said Luna, staring across the room at Twilight. “We are joined in our plotting.”
Twilight said goodbye to the guards and slipped anxiously into the room. The heavy stone door thudded shut behind her.
“Twilie!” Her brother's face was even more strained than before. “I thought you were going to let the company keep you safe!”
“She got through,” reported Twilight. “I talked with her, big brother. Your Highnesses.” Twilight bowed to the princesses. “She challenged me and threatened me―saying I was turning Shining Armor against her.”
“Which, of course, you were,” said Celestia.
“With everything I had!” agreed Twilight. “But now I know. It isn't Cadence. She didn't remember sitting me as a filly―she didn't even know that's how I knew her.”
Luna rose from her sideways seat. “You are sure she is an imposter?”
“A changeling. I'm certain.”
Shining Armor first swallowed a lump, then opened his mouth. To Twilight, he looked hopeful.
Luna and Celestia were looking into each others' eyes. Luna's face was long and baleful, Celestia's accepting. “And we can trust this assessment?” murmured Luna very softly.
“I think so,” replied Celestia in kind. She too now rose and moved to a place at the table where maps were spread.
“Then Cadence!” exclaimed Shining Armor. “She's out there somewhere!”
“She may be,” replied Celestia as she pored over the map.
“What do you mean, she may?
Luna spoke. “My sister means that the changeling race take their power from our emotions. They often choose to imprison those beings they mimic, as an enduring source of sustenance. But then again... sometimes they do not.”
“They don't? Then what...?”
Celestia interrupted Shining Armor. “We need to contain the imposter as soon as possible, before she suspects that we know. And until we have evidence to the contrary, we will assume we're dealing with the queen of the horde. We must therefore proceed with caution. Twilight, did you last see her in the guard barracks?”
Twilight blinked. “She flew out the barracks door... I think she might have veered left.” She examined the map.
“Could she have been heading for the bridal suite?” asked Celestia.
Twilight revisited her memory, envisioned the path of the departing 'princess' out the door... and swallowed.
She pointed to the map. “More likely, she was headed to the guest tower!”
Shining Armor gasped. “That's where your friends are, Twilie!”
The significance was lost on no one. “It's tempting to strike immediately,” said Celestia.
“We should strike immediately,” said Luna.
“We cannot,” Celestia emphasized. “The imposter has spent time with Twilight's friends already. She has done nothing to them but win them over. And if we go immediately, dear sister, we may be defeated!”
Luna was aghast, momentarily speechless. “Defeated? By an insect queen?!”
“By one of the Tricky Folk, Luna. Speaking with Twilight earlier gave me cause to reflect. A changeling thrives on emotions, the purest of which is love. Naturally she chose a beloved bride-to-be as her quarry. She was feeding off of all of us, but most of all you, Captain!”
Shining Armor didn't quite gasp, as Twilight expected. Instead, he winced and hung his head.
“If she's that powerful,” asked Twilight, “what can we do?”
“There is a plant,” said Celestia, “called Heart's Desire. It is toxic to changelings.”
Twilight looked up. “Heart's Desire! I know what that is... more or less. Applejack's sister overdosed on it last spring!”
“Did she?” The princesses both inclined their heads.
“It gave her the Cutie Pox. She went crazy, acting out one special talent after another! She couldn't stop until Zecora cured her with the Seeds of Truth.”
Celestia smiled distantly. “That sounds like many an eager foal I've known. In fact, I seem to recall receiving a letter from her, if it's the one I'm thinking of! Was she obsessed with getting a cutie mark, by any chance?”
Twilight smiled, too. “She still is.”
“Heart's Desire brings out one's true nature,” continued Celestia to all present. “In excess, it exaggerates the truth. A small dose will drop a changeling's disguise; a larger dose will hamper its ability to convert false love into power.”
“Why is that?” asked Twilight.
“Think of it this way, my pupil. If you were praised for an accomplishment you didn't really achieve... would you feel proud?”
“I... well, maybe for a while,” reflected Twilight. “But if... if someone else did the job I was supposed to do, I think I'd feel pretty guilty.”
Celestia and Luna exchanged a look. “Exactly,” said Celestia. “A changeling normally has no such sense of guilt. Praise is praise, whether earned or not. A changeling drugged with Heart's Desire, however, cannot spend love for Cadence as though it were love meant for itself. Its pride is too true for its own good.”
“I see,” said Twilight. “So your plan is to give the fake Cadence Heart's Desire?”
Celestia nodded. “It seems wiser than a direct confrontation. Rehearsal is scheduled shortly... I wonder whether we might convince our false Cadence to partake in any cake, under the guise of sampling its quality?”
“You want us to cut the cake before the wedding?” objected Shining Armor.
“It's okay,” said Twilight. “My friend Pinkie has experience with salvaging partly eaten cakes.”
“Indeed!” said Celestia, licking her lips. “If we're thinking of the same incident, her command of doughnut geometry is masterful.”

\\ o/` \\

Shining Armor stayed at Twilight's side as they wound their way through the palace. Instead of approaching the bridal suite directly, they took the long way through narrow, high-ceilinged corridors with stained molding. Now and then they passed by servants, and eventually Shining Armor asked one of them to go to the bridal suite and fetch Applejack and Pinkie Pie. Twilight and her brother then slipped into a multi-purpose room furnished in blues and greens. It wasn't long before the two bakers showed up in bridesmaid's dresses―fortunately without “Cadence” in tow.
“What's goin' on, Twilight?”
“Yeah! Are we having a secret pre-rehearsal before the rehearsal, just to rehearse the rehearsal? Because I haven't rehearsed for that!”
Twilight faced her friends while her brother shut the door. “It's something far grimmer, I'm afraid. Long story short... we need you two to drug the cake.”

\\ o/` \\

They were both appalled at first. Applejack had an ingrained standard of quality to uphold, and Pinkie was devastated by the very idea that delicious food could actually be bad for you. (Twilight would have to talk with her eventually.) But when Shining Armor promised that it was Celestia's idea, and Twilight explained in detail why it was necessary... they eventually came around. The group hustled to the kitchen, where a courier in black delivered a package containing a bottle of fresh extract of Heart's Desire. Luna's couriers had worked quickly! Applejack and Pinkie then hurried to mask the taste of the extract and inject it into one layer of the wedding cake. They replaced and repaired it just in time for the scheduled rehearsal.
There, in the grand hall, the conspirators milled quietly among those who hadn't been told, having judged that it wasn't worth the risk of a frantic conversation when Cadence could arrive at any moment. Celestia stood at the hall's head, peering at the main doors with her gaze distant at the same time. Twilight knew she was communicating with her sister.
Twilight overheard Fluttershy asking Applejack in a whisper why the servant had summoned them away. Applejack wasn't doing a very good job of deflecting her inquiries, so Twilight went over and looked Fluttershy straight in the eyes. “We'll discuss it later. All right?”
“Okay, Twilight.”
The doors unlatched. Mi Amore Cadenza was striding up the carpet, her expression haughty as ever.
“Cadence,” said Celestia, smiling warmly.
“Celestia.” The nostrils flared, and a wing unfurled toward Twilight. “We will not have this mare present at our wedding. She has admitted to meddling and promised to stay out of the way.” Now her eyes turned directly toward Twilight. “What is she doing here?!”
“She's my sister,” declared Shining Armor, rescuing Twilight from having to explain. “She won't be here for the wedding, but she gets to watch.”
Cadence seemed to be containing some sort of internal combustion. “Oh, does she? And if I say otherwise?”
Shining Armor winced. With that, Twilight knew that he wasn't just suffering from migraines―she was helping trigger them. “If you do, then―”
Twilight cut her brother off. “It's okay. I'll go.” She just wanted this to be over with, no matter how much pride she had to sacrifice or how much deception she needed to resort to. This imposter deserved every iota.
“Twilie! I invited you all the way here. You don't have to―”
But Twilight was already on her way out. She looked back just once, from the door. Rarity and Rainbow were aghast, verging on protest. Fluttershy and Spike just looked small. Applejack and Pinkie Pie looked stalwart, Shining Armor was in pain, and Celestia was calm.
Twilight pushed through the double doors and walked away.

\\ o/` \\

She wasn't the sort to let things go. She never was. All the most inspiring books from her foalhood had ingrained in Twilight Sparkle the habits of being prepared and of never letting control of anything important slip away. Yet now, she walked slowly back to the guest cottage without another backward glance. She rested on her low bed, surrounded by decks of cards, and closed her eyes.
She'd done her part. She would have done more, but there were few things that turned Twilight off and shut her down like sheer hatred. “Cadence” had been oozing it toward her, and Twilight was ready for the imposter not to exist anymore. She sobbed a few times into the mattress, but shed no tears. Twilight had discovered that there was a state beyond hatred. If anger was the impassioned desire to change someone, and hatred was the desire to be rid of them, then Twilight had reached a new plateau where she didn't even want the burden of hating. She let a vague sadness shield her mind and fell asleep.

\\ o/` \\

Before it was light, she woke to the sound of mortar cracking. From the cottage window, Twilight could see a chunk of Canterlot's great hall tumbling down the hillside. She actually entertained the notion of returning to sleep―a fact for which she castigated herself as she dashed for the hall.
A corner of the building was demolished. Guards already teemed outside when Twilight arrived. She heard distant cracks and scratches; looking up, she beheld indistinct black forms scrabbling at the pink bubble, which flickered intermittently. Twilight hurried in and found both Celestia and Luna standing over a horrible dark equinoid creature she could only assume was Not-Cadence trapped in a ball of silver and blue energy. Their magic flowed into the prison sphere while Shining Armor's was devoted to reinforcing the larger pink force field. Far behind them, Applejack stood jauntily near the partially eaten cake. Fluttershy, inexplicably, was prone on the floor, combing an ebullient Pinkie Pie's tail. Rainbow Dash was yelling at Not-Cadence as Twilight entered.
“You knew about this, Twilight?!” she demanded.
“Yes, I pieced it together. I didn't have time to convince everyone, so we pulled in Applejack and Pinkie, figuring it would be easier.” She looked to Celestia. “So the plan worked?”
“It is surprisingly difficult to get this creature to enjoy a piece of cake,” said Luna, still concentrating on keeping her enclosed.
“She didn't want to eat it at first,” said Fluttershy, combing carefully. “So we each had to take a bite to prove it was okay. It... hit some of us harder than others.”
Y'all can say that again!” shouted Applejack, posed against the distant pulpit.
“Why are you shouting from all the way over there?” asked Twilight.
“Y'want I should come an' shout atcha up close?!” replied Applejack.
Twilight sputtered and looked around. “Where's Rarity?”
“Oh... she's... decorating,” murmured Fluttershy, engrossed in a particularly difficult tail snarl.” A―a lot. And Spike went with her.”
“Of course he did,” muttered Twilight. “So, what? The Heart's Desire made you want to do nothing but comb Pinkie's hair?”
“They say it affects everypony differently,” conceded Fluttershy.
“My body is made of candy,” said Pinkie Pie, legs stock straight and voice as trippy as anything Twilight had ever heard. Her eyes were swirling kaleidoscopes. “The only question is―for whom?!
“...Right. And Rainbow is...”
“Not about to let this flea-bitten, shambling, trash-faced jerk of a changeling off the hook for a moment!” She peered into the bubble and made a threatening gesture. “Do you hear me, scum?”
The changeling swung around to face Rainbow and hissed. “I am a Queen!
“You'll be Queen Inkblot if you don't tell us pronto what you've done with Cadence! Where is she?!”
“Release me and I'll tell,” retorted the prisoner in a voice that somehow sounded... segmented.
“As you can see,” said Celestia, “the changeling queen refuses to reveal Cadence's location. She has drained her of her magic, making her impossible to trace. She could be leagues away or ensconced in this very palace―we have no way of knowing.”
“She just said 'Release me and I'll tell!'” yelled Applejack from across the room. “Seems to me that's a way of knowin', even if it's a plumb moronic one!”
“So the Heart's Desire is making Applejack yell out annoying truths at the top of her lungs,” surmised Twilight.
It suuuure is!” agreed Applejack.
“What about you?” Twilight asked the princesses. “Is it having any effect?”
“We are inoculated against the effects of personality-altering brews,” said Luna, furrowed in concentration. “Still, you do not know the effort it takes for us not to break into showtunes at this very moment.”
“You totally shooould!” sang Pinkie. “Any word you don't siiinng is a word half waaaa-steeeeed!
Twilight squatted before the changeling queen. “If she won't tell where Cadence is, what are we going to do with her?”
“Stomp her flat and use her guts for paint!” suggested Rainbow.
“Ooh!” said Pinkie. “Now that's taking paint to the next level!”
“This is Equestria,” grunted Shining Armor, clearly under a lot of strain. “We don't kill prisoners, and we don't torture!”
Luna glanced sharply at her sister. “Is that true?”
Celestia sighed, not looking up. “Yes. But we do have ways. Continue to drain her until she falls, Luna, and then leave her to me.”
“Too bad about the not torturin',” hollered Applejack, “or y'all could probably make use of them showtunes!”
“Oh, I'm not ruling that out,” said Celestia, even as the changeling collapsed to the floor.

\\ o/` \\

The wedding was canceled. Instead, the guests enjoyed cake and hors d'oeuvres and spent the day in a fantabulously overdecorated reception hall playing baccarat. Spike donned a top hat and took the microphone while Twilight's friends worked out their Heart's Desire overdoses and the princesses worked their magic on the changeling queen behind closed doors.
The guests departed, mumbling uncertainties. Twilight spent the night in the palace, moving from room to room and seeking out the chancellor for news as often as she could. She watched from the High Watchtower as the changeling horde finally withdrew from her brother's gigantic dome and vanished into the night.
Come morning, Celestia's only update was, “She's softening.” And over the next day, Celestia had little to say about the process of interrogating the changeling queen except that it was proceeding apace and that she expected it to take no more than another week... or two at the outside.
Twilight and her friends went home. There was nothing more for them to do. Once the effects of Heart's Desire wore off, they tried to resume their normal lives... but their hearts, simply put, weren't in it. For hours each day Twilight watched Spike, waiting for him to cough up a scroll, only for him to catch her staring and shrug helplessly. Every day, two or more of her friends got together and didn't say much.
Five days after their return home, the Ponyville Gazette reported that the protective pink dome over Canterlot was gone. Shining Armor had his long-deserved rest.
Then, finally, word came. The changeling queen had succumbed to Princess Celestia's 'techniques'. She had reported Cadence's location in the crystal mines beneath the palace. Cadence had been found starving and ill, but had stared into her impersonator's eyes for a full minute before going to her meal and bath. The changeling queen, drained and loveless, had been released to rejoin her horde, by now far away to the northeast.
“What about the wedding?” asked Spike, leapfrogging over the back of a chair while Twilight finished reading the letter. “Are we going back to Canterlot for the real wedding?”
Twilight scanned the text again. “It doesn't say. Should I... write back and ask?”
Spike nodded enthusiastically. Twilight wondered what had happened to change his attitude toward marriage so much. Unless he was just looking forward to the cake.
Their reply arrived three hours later. To Twilight's surprise, the scroll Spike gave her wasn't from Celestia. It was from Shining Armor.
Twilight's heart sank as she read it. “Spike... they're not getting married. Not yet, anyway.”
“What?” exclaimed Spike.
Twilight nodded. “Shining Armor says he... he feels like a fool that he didn't realize his bride to be was an imposter. 'I owe you so much, Twilight,'” she read aloud. “'If you hadn't put the clues together and realized she was a fake, I'd be married to a changeling now. It took someone who hadn't seen her in years to pull the curtains down and save the real Cadence.
“'I should have known better than anyone, but I didn't. I should have recognized that the love of my life was gone, and I should have realized that the threat to Canterlot was much closer than any of us knew. I didn't.
“'I've tendered my resignation to Celestia as captain of the guard. She deserves better, and so does Cadence. If Cadence stays with me anyhow, then maybe... maybe, someday, wedding bells will ring. Until then, your brother is just a single lieutenant.
“'Sincerely, 1st Lieutenant Shining Armor.'”
Spike stood stunned on the chair. “They don't love each other anymore?”
Twilight was stricken by echoes of a time when Spike had trekked out into the Everfree, believing himself unloved and forgotten. “I think Cadence still loves him. She must! And I think on some level... he must still love her, too.”
Spike looked at Twilight admiringly, as if she'd somehow become an expert. “So... what do we do?”
Twilight smiled wanly. “We pack our bags, Spike. We're going to pay my brother a visit.”
The little dragon nodded three times and was upstairs packing in less than half a minute.

Da Capo.



The guards timidly peered in from either side, retaking their posts. It turned out they'd been afraid of Cadence as well―perhaps she'd been treating them to similarly sociopathic behavior over the last few weeks. Twilight had to wonder whether anyone would have discovered the truth in time if this imposter had only been a bit more circumspect...