Twilight looked out of her cabin window, not really interested in watching the trees speed by but unable to force herself to do something else. She had been in her cabin for the better part of two hours and nothing other than the conductor going through the cars on his ticket check had pulled Twilight out of the little compartment. Even then she had only gone to the door, had her ticket punched by the old stallion, and slumped down back on her bench.
The little ceremony at the train station hadn’t even been depressing. All of Twilight’s friends had gone with her after the party to help with her luggage and Twilight had said a few words to the crowd of well-wishers that had turned up. They had wanted to show “Ponyville solidarity” with their representative and shaking hooves with old biddies and meeting fillies in strollers had distracted Twilight from the sense of loss that had been bubbling up since the farewell party.
Twilight had been happy to think that she’d spend the rest of her life in Ponyville, doing research for the princess and reading every book in the library. Maybe, one day, she’d write her own encyclopedia of magic, but anything along those lines had been distant plans at the very least. The swiftness at which she’d accepted the representative position actually scared Twilight; all it had taken to do away with her doubts had been an official letter and a few words of praise from her mentor. It had been another research project to her – a new challenge to understand and overcome. The reality of it all had, Twilight reflected, hit when those passenger car doors slid closed. After that point the only view she got of her former home had been a fleeting one through the thick glass of her cabin window.
That had been over two hours ago and Twilight hadn’t moved much since. Her stomach was one big knot of anxiety, filling her up to the point of nausea. Everything she knew and loved was, literally, miles behind her now and she was traveling into the unknown. The only possible positive of all this now that the thrill of moment was gone was the promise of being close to her teacher once again. Somewhere at the end of these tracks her teacher would be waiting on her, ready to dispense advice Twilight knew she needed badly. Princess Celestia would want to know all about the election and would pull her student aside for an hour or two, probably over dinner, to get the full story. Twilight could almost feel the glow of her teacher’s smile as she brushed away all of Twilight’s problems with a few words of wisdom. After that, the princess could help Twilight get adjusted to her new job and fill the social void she now had in her life.
The only thing left to do now was wait until the train arrived in Canterlot. Twilight shook her head when the idea of spending the entire trip staring out of her window actually sounded appealing in her head. The bag of books that Spike had put aside for her earlier was tossed haphazardly on the bed. Its flap had come open and a book had slid half-way out. Twilight continued to ignore both the books and the slight mess; she couldn’t touch them without remembering Spike’s miserable face as he had said his goodbye at the platform. She didn’t know if it would have been better if he had actually broken down instead of trying to keep a stiff upper-lip. He had been assuring her he’d take good care of the library up until the door slid closed and the train’s workings drowned out his voice…
‘Too much moping,’ Twilight told herself, pulling away from the memory. She could go through this with the princess in Canterlot, but not now. Not alone.
Ignoring her books and saddlebags, Twilight rolled off her cot and moved to the door. She didn’t have anything else with her in the room; her travel trunks were stored further down the train in the baggage car and it would be too much trouble to go retrieve something. Besides, right now the unicorn didn’t want to spend the rest of the trip cooped up in her room reading: she wanted a distraction. Something to keep her mind busy and off her friends and Ponyville.
The car Twilight was in was a passenger sleeper. Rooms just like hers lined each side of the central hallway and there were doors at both ends that connected to the other cars. The lounge was behind while the dining car was ahead – Twilight wasn’t particularly hungry, so she turned on her hooves and made for the lounge. She passed a few passengers in the hall, but they exchanged nothing other than polite nods between one another. Twilight watched them disappear behind their cabin doors and wondered if she’d find anypony even in the lounge. It was almost past six in the afternoon and the dining car would probably be more popular.
It turned out, though, that there were indeed ponies to speak with. Twilight entered a warm car bathed in red when she got past the clattering passage between her sleeper and the lounge. The entire car was upholstered in vibrant velvet and more than a dozen ponies were littered around the room, some in pairs or groups and one or two by themselves.
“Excuse me, Miss.”
Twilight mumbled an apology and hustled inside, letting in an older stallion. He magically tipped his hat to her as he passed and headed for the far side of the car where a small party of ponies seemed to be waiting for him.
There was plenty of room for Twilight to find a place of her own. The comfortable heat, she discovered, was coming from a fine-polished radiator near the middle of the lounge. She took the couch directly beside it and pulled a Canterlot newspaper to her from further down that somepony had left so she didn’t seem too out of place. She hadn’t intended on reading it, but the headline caught her attention. “Major Crackdown on Campaign Funding” was splashed across the front of the page. Below it was an enormous picture of the candidates she had shared a stage with during the election – sans McLane. The article reported on an ongoing investigation into the inappropriate use of campaign funding. Larger political donors were demanding back the money that had went into Twilight’s election fee and the other candidates couldn’t deliver.
‘McLane said in his news conference that he paid out of pocket,’ Twilight remembered. Her fee had been fronted by the other candidates and it had amounted to nearly twelve-thousand bits apiece for them to put her on the ballot that close to the election. She wondered just how out of the loop she was to be surprised by the news that several important ponies were being investigated for election fraud. ‘I’ve been so busy just trying to figure out what my job will be that I haven’t been able to think about it.’
Twilight had spent the last week brushing up on her political science studies. Princess Celestia was responsible for approving laws and motions that came out of the two branches of Equestrian Parliament: the Common Assembly and the Assembly of Nobilities. As a member of the former, Twilight was responsible for her own district, Briarwood, and would work for the ponies living in Ponyville, Briarwood, Fillydelphia, Trottingham, and Green River. She had some idea of what to suggest, but because she had never visited most of the areas she would represent Twilight was unsure of what she could actually accomplish during the first year of her tenure.
The unicorn’s thoughts began to drift, but this time they dwelt on what was coming rather than on what had been left behind. Twilight knew she would get an office in the upper-platform area of Canterlot: the upper-platform was the center of Equestrian political life. It was where the Assembly offices were, where the Castle was, and where the massive parliamentary building held the meetings that would take up much of Twilight’s time. It would be easy to commute if Twilight’s old room at the castle was still available. If the princess put her somewhere else she might have to walk a bit.
In the midst of planning a daily course to work Twilight felt the cushion next to her shift. The stallion that had come in after her had sat down with the rest of his group. Several were still standing in the middle of the car talking, but a few had descended on the newspapers and magazines laid out on the end table beside the radiator. The one sitting next to Twilight, however, cleared his throat and pointed to the purple unicorn’s newspaper.
“I say, are you finished with that paper, young lady?” he asked. His voice was scratchy, but elegantly so. With a smart black suit, dapper top hat, and well-groomed red coat, he reminded Twilight of her old professors from the princess’s school. She had already skimmed the article that had grabbed her attention, so she floated the paper over to him. “Thank you. I say, you certainly did select the best spot in the car. It is dreadfully drafty near the other end.” His Spanish-style mustache twitched as he magically shook out the folds in the newspaper.
It seemed like a statement that didn’t warrant a real reply, so Twilight just politely nodded. She felt suddenly uncomfortable as more of the obviously upper-class ponies settled on the couches closest to the radiator. Some were reading papers, but most were discussing various bits of news from around Equestria. From what Twilight could gather from unavoidable eavesdropping, they traveling from a business trip in Fillydelphia back to Canterlot and hadn’t been watching recent events very closely.
One of the unicorns, an elegant mare in a frilly dress, snorted in distain as she read the cover of the Hoofington Post that was on the couch next to her. “We may have missed Canterlot’s spring ball, but count our blessings that we weren’t in Ponyville during their election fracas. Can you believe that McLane is trying to become a governor now? Why, he married into the McLane’s if I recall correctly – does he believe he’s entitled to a noble’s office?”
“He’s of acceptable stock,” one of the others replied. “His wife’s family has always poached talented public servants over the years and he’s made quite the handsome sum himself in Trottingham. If we must have someone from average stock as a governor he isn’t the worst we could do.”
Nods all around, Twilight observed. She didn’t exactly understand what the conversation was about – Twilight knew that the official governorships had been open to general ballots since 1279 – but she couldn’t help but feel drawn to the conversation. Here were ponies that obviously kept up with goings on in Equestria and were educated enough to have informed opinions; Twilight almost felt like she was back at the castle already.
Her captivation didn’t go unnoticed, though. “I say, I believe we have a bit of an admirer.” The pony that Twilight had held up earlier had caught her paying too much attention. Twilight thought he’d be mad, but the stallion only inclined his head to get a better look at her. “Interested in politics, Miss? You looked as if you had something you wanted to add. Come now, speak up!”
Twilight’s jaw flapped as she was suddenly the center of attention. “Oh, no, I just couldn’t help b-but overhear.” She was already the center of attention, however. The group of ponies were already looking at Twilight with varying degrees of interest.
She couldn’t escape, but at the same time escaping was what Twilight had been specifically trying to avoid by leaving her cabin. A little conversation wouldn’t be too bad, would it?
“Well, I was thinking of the Administration Reorganization of 1279 and the new election rules. I just didn’t see why being nobility was so important now.”
Most of the upper-crust ponies looked affronted or confused by the argument. Twilight felt smaller than ever and chided herself for getting too wordy, but she didn’t know how else to add anything to the conversation. The only bright spot for her was that the stallion next to her looked like he was thinking about it.
“That’s quite the position to take,” he commented. Unlike Twilight, everypony was giving him their undivided attention. “I don’t think I’ve even heard of the…what was it? The Administration Reorganization of 1279? I can’t say I’ve ever heard of that. Are you a student of the Canterlot College?”
The College, Twilight remembered, was the primary bureaucracy provider for the government. She had actually attended a few classes there during the summer downtime. “I spent my summer semesters there, but I’m a student of the princess’s school.”
“Is that right? I didn’t know that political studies were a large part of the magic academy. You must be rather impressive to pick that up during just the summer.”
Twilight blushed. “Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time reading about politics recently because of the election.”
One of the mares fluttered her fan. “Were you following that election fiasco in Ponyville as well?” She asked the question with a fair bit of sarcasm. “Why, I’ve never seen such a—”
“Excuse me,” the stallion cut in, looking at Twilight, “But I’m terribly embarrassed that I haven’t introduced myself yet: I’m Ser Reinhoof. I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of your name yet, Miss…?”
“Oh! Oh, I’m sorry! I’m Twilight Sparkle.”
It was only after she introduced herself that Twilight realized just what Reinhoof had implied with his introduction. His title revealed him as a hereditary noble and the young unicorn struggled to remember the proper greeting. She slipped off the bench and spread her front legs, ducking her head a quarter down from the top of her shoulder. It was hard to get the exact pose, but Twilight was certain that she remembered the description from the Nobility and Postulating, Second Edition.
Reinhoof was silent for a moment, but he too rose and ducked his head. Though not as deeply or ridged, his moves were just as precise as Twilight’s. “I haven’t seen an official supplication in over three years,” he remarked, smiling broadly. “I didn’t think there was anypony of the younger generations that remembered it.”
“My father and his friends still do that,” one of the mares spoke up. They looked like they were in on a joke which Twilight didn’t quite think she understood. “All the older ponies do. Don’t you think it’s just so…retro?”
There was a good bit of tittering from the younger ponies gathered. Twilight suddenly felt extremely silly, standing on formality like she was. This was a public train after all; she hadn’t judged the mood correctly and had made an ass of herself.
Just as she was about to apologize, the red stallion tapped Twilight’s hoof where the others couldn’t see. “I find it charming that some of the younger generation remember proper decorum,” he stated. It didn’t seem like he was addressing anyone in particular, but the muffled whispers abruptly stopped. “It’s quite something for the Princess’s personal student, not to mention the youngest representative in Equestrian history, to honor me so.”
An even older stallion, whom had remained quiet from the conversation thus far, looked over at Twilight. His caterpillar-like grey eyebrows hitched upwards a bit when he glanced over the young mare. “It’s in bad taste for members of the government to show deference to one another, young lady,” he muttered. “Still, politeness in any form is at a premium these days.”
Twilight wanted to reply to that, but Reinhoof was already guiding her away. “It’s an excellent time to speak of business before we get to Canterlot,” he explained. Twilight followed him to the back of the lounge car, far enough removed from the group that Twilight couldn’t even hear the hushed whispers that had started back up as they moved away.
“You’ll have to forgive Ser Hapspan for his bluntness. His trip to his holdings in the west did not go as he had hoped.”
“Oh, there’s nothing to forgive! I’m just so embarrassed I couldn’t remember the correct etiquette for an informal meeting! It’s been so long since I’ve read up on the subject that some parts are blurry in my head.”
Reinhoof chuckled and shook his head. “Remarkable! You actually are embarrassed that you couldn’t remember the exact positions and motions of that ridged old greeting! I admit the keenness of your studiousness leaves me feeling rather inadequate: I could only partially remember what I was supposed to do in answer.”
“That can’t really be true, can it?” Twilight joked. Her smile fell when Reinhoof didn’t laugh and she felt foolish again.
The stallion sank down onto the sofa and Twilight did the same a respectable distance away. She got the feeling that there was something heavy weighing on the noble’s mind since his eyes did the same annoyed dip that the Princess’s did when she was worried. Twilight had never known what to do when her mentor was upset and she didn’t know what to do now so she just waited for Reinhoof to say something.
After a good minute of silence, he did. “Tell me, did you feel anything in particular when the others didn’t return the correct greeting?” Seeing Twilight’s confusion, he added, “Were you even aware that they were all nobility of high station?”
Twilight tried not to look completely mortified, but it was impossible. She tactlessly looked over at the group of ponies they had just left; while not in casual clothing, they certainly weren’t dressed as sharply as Reinhoof or the older gentlecolt that had spoken to her. The young stallions were in casual shirts and slacks and the women had on plain saddles. The ones that weren’t going for less had gone for too much: a few of the mares wore such bright colors and jewels that they even glittered and gleamed inside the dark lounge. Twilight was no fashionista like Rarity, but she would have never pegged that clothing for what nobility chose to wear.
“I can see in your expression that you didn’t realize they were the same station as I. You need not cover what you think of it to me – I assure you that I feel the same.”
“Well, I’m not the best judge of fashion myself.”
Reinhoof sharply shook his head. “I’m not referring to just their wardrobe, I’m afraid. More and more types like them have been granted their hereditary seats in the Assembly of Nobility. I had hoped that with some proper guidance they would turn a corner, but my way, our way, of behaving isn't nearly as attractive as a life public flamboyance and celebrity.”
He clapped the stunned unicorn on the shoulder. “I’ll be counting on you to show a good example in the Commons. I’m not exaggerating when I say you’re one of the most talented and fair-mannered representatives I’ve seen in a good many years…not that the student of the princess could be any less.”
Twilight dumbly nodded. When she had wanted to have a conversation with another pony this was not what she had expected. Honestly, she didn’t know what Reinhoof expected her to do. A seat in the Assembly of Nobles wasn’t something a pony could be kicked from easily. The families allowed to sit in the Assembly had all done some spectacular service for the princess at some point. Her father was probably better-equipped to answer something like this than she was.
Reinhoof tapped Twilight gently on the hoof. “Don’t worry too much about it, Miss Sparkle. I’m only giving you the same pep talk I try and give every new representative so you don’t end up in the papers for anything other than your successes. I’m sure you’re already more than experienced on the workings of the court from your time with the princess.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over the pair when Twilight didn’t answer. Reinhoof’s kind smile started to droop a bit as Twilight’s blush intensified. “I actually didn’t attend court that much with the princess,” she admitted, bashful and embarrassed. “I-I don’t want to be a black spot on the Assembly like…” her eyes briefly cut across the car, seeking out the rude and gaudy nobles further down. “Could you…could you tell me what I’m supposed to do?”
The red unicorn floated out a small piece of paper from inside his suit. “Well, at least you can admit when you need help. That’s an admirable trait as well,” he said, though a bit less-enthused than he was previously. “I have the honor of hosting the Fall Ball this year at my residence. Traditionally only nobility usually go to the non-public affairs, but since you’re the princess’s assistant I believe I can make an exception. That’s the card of Canterlot’s premier tailor. If you tell them you were referred by me, they should be able to give you all the help you’ll need when it comes with how to dress. Dressing smartly is, after all, the best way to show a proper outward face.”
Twilight, lacking pockets at the moment, kept the card near her with magic. She wondered if Celestia would want her to go to a ball when she could be working in her office for the ponies of her district. She had wanted advice on how to act in the parliament, not how to act at a party. Dressing up for a ball with a bunch of ponies she didn’t know wasn’t really Twilight’s forte, either.
“I’ll see what my schedule is like when I get settled, Ser,” Twilight replied. She could tell that her answer wasn’t the one the older stallion wanted, but he was too polite to press the issue.
He gave her a perfunctory smile. “Well, I certainly hope to see you there. I shall certainly put your name on our guest list. Perhaps before then you can—” A raucous laugh echoed through the cabin as the younger nobility traveling with Reinhoof erupted into laughter. Twilight, Reinhoof, and the other travelers all turned to stare. The red stallion’s nose twitched and he hastily said his goodbyes, taking his leave to reign back in his companions.
Twilight let out a deep breath. She had gotten sucked up in a topic far out of her experience. Her friends had once thought that Twilight would be posh and noble-like since she grew up in the castle, but she had corrected that view very quickly. The princess kept most of her lessens in the school and very rarely did Twilight actually accompany her mentor to anything more official than a meet-and-greet. She had never sat in on a session of the court or even been present for an awards ceremony. In hindsight, Twilight wished she had tagged along more considering her current occupation, but wishing wouldn’t help now. The best she could do is act like she always had and do the best job possible.
Still, she kept the card. Twilight hustled out of the lounge before Reinhoof could catch her again while he was busy politely trying to keep the rambunctious young fillies in-check. As she stepped into her sleeper, the train’s intercom crackled to life.
“Next stop: Canterlot. All departing guests should get their baggage tickets ready to present to the conductor.”
Perfect timing! Twilight trotted down to her cabin and slipped the tailor’s card into her saddlebag after hoisting it onto her back. The books that had caused so much early distress went back to their places quickly so Twilight didn’t linger on them. ‘Soon,’ she told herself, ‘I’ll be back at the castle with the princess and I can talk about all of this with her. I certainly have a good topic to break the ice with!’ Perhaps the princess would even know a way to politely turn down Reinhoof’s invitation?
Twilight was grateful that she didn’t see Reinhoof or any of his companions when she stepped onto the platform. She had prepared her baggage ticket as well as all her belongings from her cabin half an hour before it was time to detrain just for that result. Twilight found herself at the front of the baggage queue, well ahead of anyone who would catch her in time-draining conversation. Hopefully she could be up the mountain and at the palace before dinner; Celestia tended to eat rather early, after all.
Genesis Station was situated in a cave inside of the mountain upon which the city was built. Since Canterlot was over two thousand feet higher than the plains below, a tunnel and bridge had been a necessity in construction. Shafts and tunnels used to be the thoroughfare before steam engines and modern building techniques made a city at the top of a mountain viable. Twilight had gotten a very personal look at the old tunnels underneath Canterlot unwillingly, but every few years an expedition would go down to dig up artifacts from thousands of years ago and put them on display at the college or Royal Museum. This station itself was formally just a market from an era long ago; it was an exceptionally large cavern that had been in just the right spot for the bridge to meet. A little bit of blasting and the tunnel had linked right to it.
There was a surprising amount of light for being so far inside a mountain. Twilight easily moved around on the platform and informed the baggage handlers that she would need her things delivered to the castle in a few hours. That should be enough time for her to not only speak with the princess but to also get settled in her old room.
Behind her, the train let out a long whistle and it rumbled along its tracks, continuing onward to the grand rail yard where it would take on water and coal for the trip back to the provinces. Contrary to many outsiders’ imagination, Canterlot wasn’t simply the city at the top of the mountain. The actual city stretched downward from the plateau at the top to this station, fifteen hundred feet down. The districts, divided into one quarter per level, stretched all the way up the mountain. Only the ones above Genesis Station remained inhabited, but there were still over twenty thousand ponies living and working inside Canterlot. They ranged from clerks for the government, miners that traveled out to neighboring mountains for limestone, steel workers in one of the massive forges that would ship steel to settlements all over Equestria, and merchants that sifted through the produce of an entire country.
Twilight’s own parents lived at the very top of the district pile because her father had been Canterlot's chief magistrate for years. She had written them a short letter before setting off for Canterlot of course, but there hadn't been enough time for them to respond before she had to leave. If Celestia didn't know how to politely deal with Reinhoof's invitation then her father certainly would. She would drop in on them after meeting with the princess.
The train that went upwards, winding around the quarters, departed on the other side of the platform in ten minutes. Twilight trotted over to the main kiosk and purchased a simple transit pass and queued up on the platform. Most of the ponies with her were upper-class day travelers who went to nearby Fillydelphia for pleasure or business and returned to their homes at the top of the mountain in the afternoon. It took a few hours to make the commute, but Twilight was always surprised at how many ponies decided to go to that much trouble. To her, Canterlot contained anything a pony could want if they were willing to search – especially when you only wanted one thing.
“One ticket for the castle, please.” Twilight’s smile crept back onto her lips at the words; she hadn’t said them in over three years and the nostalgia swelling about her was like a warm blanket after so long. She remembered the trips and assignments the princess would send her on from time to time and the thrill of adventure every time she’d set hoof on the train platform. That thrill didn’t compare to feeling Twilight would get holding her ticket back home after the trips, though. Twilight didn’t want to have the feeling, but her mind almost fell into the same patterns once again. She didn’t want to think of her time in Ponyville as just a fieldtrip, but here she was, back at the main station, holding a ticket for the familiar Prestige Line that would take her back to the castle.
Unlike the train she had just left, the Prestige Line (Canterlot natives simply called it “The Prestige”) functioned exclusively inside Canterlot. Trains running it started on this quarter and made stops at every station until it hit Canterlot Summit Station. It was operated by sleek, modern trains that only carried passengers and their luggage – specialty freight trains or porters would take goods and raw material from here into the different city quarters.
Twilight stepped into the packed commuter line and struggled to find standing room. At one time these crowds had been so daunting that she regularly missed several trains just so she could stand in one not so crowded. Now, the more-worldly unicorn pushed with the best of them to get room.
The dazzling lights of Canterlot flashed by the windows as the train pulled away from the station. One train on the Prestige had broken the Equestrian land speed record for a train last year and Twilight knew it wouldn’t take very long for them to reach the summit. Riders on the line could see the entirety of Canterlot in twenty minutes if they wanted, but Twilight was anxious to get to the castle now. She was so close she could almost feel the blissful peace of the gardens, even in this mass of ponies.
Summit Station was announced two stops before reaching it and Twilight worked her way closer to the sliding doors. A flood of ponies got off at the Counting Quarter stop and a healthy bit stepped out at Embarkation Ledge, the best place for pegasi in Canterlot on business to take off without having to deal with security at the summit. The Ledge also had great scenic housing for those rich enough to buy. Quite a few of Twilight’s old schoolmates lived there.
It didn’t compare to the Summit, though.
Summit Station, situated far back from the palace, was one of the oldest buildings in Canterlot. It hadn’t always been a train station, as evident by the high arches and open skylights that Twilight passed under as she disembarked. At one time it was the royal carriage station, but when Canterlot had finally reached the summit the princess had given the carriage house to the transit authority. A few signs, like the architecture, pointed to what it had been before the rapid expansion necessary for all the traffic it housed, but normal ponies wouldn’t know what they were passing through. Twilight had always loved it, though. There was a little museum in the back that had some old carriages and pictures of Princess Celestia riding in them (some of the first pictures ever taken, according to the curator).
Twilight didn’t bother with looking through the museum today, though. Twilight’s mind was already past the summit grassland and the noble estates that were between the station and the palace; her hoofs were briskly taking her out of the crowds and onto the main road. Other ponies could wait for a carriage – she would get their quicker herself.
Canterlot Castle loomed over the summit from any place on the plateau. It had originally been built on the side of the mountain, but over the centuries it had spilled over the side and now parts of it hung down like a bee hive. The guards let her through the gates without incident, but only the castle grounds were open to the general public – you had to have the proper credentials to get into the palace itself without an appointment. Twilight, ragged and huffy, suddenly wished she hadn’t been so enthusiastic that she trotted the whole way from the station. Her bags probably wouldn’t get to the palace for another hour!
The unicorn floated a brush out of her saddlebag and ran it through her mane. The princess would probably be in the dining room right now. Dinner in Canterlot for the princess was simply another court function and the princess would retire to her private dining room for actual food whenever her guests got tired of talking. That was as good a place as any to catch the princess when she had a moment.
Twilight hoped that the princess had gotten the letter she had sent the day before. Celestia hadn’t written anything since the election and Twilight was a bit worried that her mentor might be too busy to see her tonight. If she was, then maybe the princess could just give her advice about how to deal with Reinhoof and they could talk more tomorrow when the princess would inevitably give Twilight a tour of the council building. Maybe the big talk about her duties and such would be better in the morning? Twilight would be fine with that – she was a bit drained anyway and her old bed was practically singing to her.
In fact, Twilight decided, it would probably be best if she just headed up there before meeting with the princess so she could put away her saddlebag and maybe take a shower. She might not get intimidated by riding on the Prestige Line anymore, but that didn’t mean she didn’t feel dirty after being packed in with so many ponies.
She made for the central staircase that led to the towers, but to her considerable surprise the guards on duty extended their wings to block her. Twilight looked around for any other ponies getting too close to the stairs, but saw none. Odd.
“Um, excuse me,” Twilight said, trying to sidestep. The guards extended their outerwings and blocked the entire stairway to her. By now the commotion had drawn the attention of several tourists who were watching with curiosity.
Twilight’s muzzle scrunched up at the impassive faces of the golden-armored pegasi. “I’m Twilight Sparkle,” she said, slowly and clearly so that they could hear her.
The guard’s expression didn’t change, but one did answer. “We were not informed by the steward that Representative Sparkle had business in the castle today,” he said. Their wings still blocked the entrance.
Completely frazzled, Twilight couldn’t think of anything to say in response to that. It was true that she hadn’t checked in with the castle’s steward. Then again, never before in her eighteen years had she ever had to check in with anyone but the princess. She would have just demanded that the guards move, but they had always intimidated her a bit.
“Isn’t that the princess’s student?” one observer said to another. What had been just a few curious glances had now turned into a group. Some of them were even snapping pictures. Twilight, frozen like a deer on train tracks, didn’t know how to convince the guards and shake the attention. She was almost to the point of skulking away and sending the princess another letter about getting in.
As chance would have it, however, Twilight’s salvation was coming down the stairs that very instant. The castle’s steward, no doubt drawn by the ruckus, nudged his way past the guard’s wings. He paused at the landing, took in the crowd, and turned a serine smile on Twilight.
“Miss Sparkle, I’m afraid there was a bit of a mix-up with your clearance,” he loudly declared. “You can come right on up.”
The relief that flooded through Twilight’s thoughts was immense. She darted through the now-open passage past the guards and was taking the steps two at a time on her way up. As she turned the corner at the top, she could see the steward personally ushering the tourists along toward the statue garden outside.
Twilight lingered and waited on the other unicorn to join her. The steward, an old stallion named Sol Shard, had known Twilight since she had been named Celestia’s student. He usually wasn’t a fixture of Twilight’s time at the castle, but of the few memories she had of him his gentle smile stood out. Twilight certainly never remembered the steward looking as upset as he did coming back up the stairs.
“Mr. Shard, thank you for helping me. I don’t really understand what happened with the guards.”
He gave Twilight a look of barely-restrained annoyance and motioned her to follow him. “Not out here. There are still some guests about.” Twilight said no more and hurried along after him. She didn’t envy the chewing-out those guards were probably going to get for causing a scene like that; the steward seemed to be positively steaming.
As well as Twilight could figure, they were heading to the offices over the barbican, away from the royal dwelling area. ‘Perhaps,’ Twilight thought, ‘the princess is running late on official business?’ She could think of no other reason why Celestia would be in this area of the castle this late in the day. Twilight had often followed her around on her daily rounds, but never this late. The princess closed court a little after three and it was well past four at the moment.
This part of the castle kept busy, even if the official court did not. The Canterlot bureaucracy kept things running just as eternally as Celestia’s sun or Luna’s moon overhead. The princess often spoke of how dedicated the staff here was to work so late into the night to ensure that Equestria ran smoothly. Twilight had done a few studies on magical manipulation at the central record office here with the princess – some of the record-keepers could manipulate stacks of papers that contained hundreds of individual pages with magic. It was truly a sight to see!
Twilight and Sol Shard had already passed that room, though. The unicorn steward stopped in front of an old oak door and Twilight went in first. To her confusion, the princess wasn’t inside. What was there was a large, open office dominated by a wooden desk flanked by two windows overlooking the approach to the castle.
The harsh sound of the door slamming closed made Twilight jump. Sol Shard stalked past the desk to the windows, leaving Twilight standing uncomfortably in the middle of the sprawling office.
“Um,” Twilight coughed when her voice came out raspy and dry; this was highly uncomfortable. “Is the princess going to meet me here?”
Sol Shard let out a mirthless chuckle. “The princess? Young lady, what makes you believe you are going to see Princess Celestia?” He turned from the window and looked at Twilight with the same ruffled expression he had worn in the hallway coming to the office, only less-restrained. Twilight could see his lip curling slightly. “You arrive at the castle unannounced, start a scene that was highly embarrassing for the crown in front of a crowd of tourists, and now want to interrupt the princess?” he asked, incredulous. “Perhaps you don’t understand your position, Representative Sparkle.”
Floored, Twilight took a step back. The large office now seemed much, much too small – her chest was starting to burn and her breaths came out in quick gasps. “What…what are you saying? I’m the princess’s student!” She had never, in all her years in Canterlot, been treated like this at the castle. The castle had always been open to her!
“You were the princess’s student! Now you’re the newest member of the Common Assembly and the current media flavor of the month!” He let out a gruff breath of air and pointed a hoof at Twilight, as if giving an explanation to a child. “The Princess cannot be seen favoring one faction in the Parliament over another. If you get unrestricted access to the castle, then the other representatives will demand it as well.”
Twilight couldn’t breathe. The sheer gravity of what the steward was telling her –that it was somehow politically toxic for the princess to see her– was suffocating. “I’m not a member of any faction! I haven’t even been sworn-in!”
The stallion groaned. “You defeated a popular reformist candidate that was looking like a sure thing at the last minute and you’ve been the princess’s student for your entire life! There are already accusations that the princess groomed you for this position to undermine the newest reform bills being debated in the parliament! If you come and go from the castle anytime you wished what kind of message would that send? The royalist and reform blocs have been moving toward compromise, at the princess’s behest, for weeks now and your success in the elections could up-end that!”
Distantly, Twilight realized that this was something he had obviously put a lot of thought into. If the castle steward was thinking about it, Twilight’s mind rationalized, then the princess was thinking about it. The lackluster, near-hidden congratulatory message from the princess now seemed much more significant. Maybe it was brief because the princess wasn’t happy for her success? Maybe it was nothing but the colossal headache that Sol Shard said it was?
Maybe the last thing Princess Celestia wanted was to see Twilight’s face?
“I didn’t know…I-I didn’t think about any of that! I wasn’t trying to…to influence the princess! I just…I just—” She couldn’t finish. Her throat was clenching tighter with every frantic beat of her heart and the burning behind her eyes was nigh-blinding. With one shuddering breath, the floor rushed on her as she collapsed in the middle of Sol Shard’s office...