Editing by: Lammy & Fifth Alicorn / Proof by: Trevor & Super Big Mac
Special thanks to: Spaerk, Raine Moon, Din182, Devas and Oberon.
That morning at Sugarcube Corner, Pinkie Pie had taken to whistling as she bounced around, serving up sweets and surprise with equal gusto. The last loop, Pinkie had broken into an impromptu song about marzipan and something called ‘madiera’ which was either a type of chocolate or somepony Pinkie was in love with. She was only consistent in her inconsistency. Sweetie noticed the randomness always seemed to bring a smile to the face of her would-be host.
“Okay, Sweetie Belle...” Blueblood smiled. “Here she comes. Remember, just like I taught you.”
“Right,” Sweetie nodded and took a deep breath, before smiling at Pinkie Pie as she trotted up to their table. “Hallo, ich hätte gerne einen Milchshake, zwei Kürbisecken und eine Birne.”
Pinkie gasped in delight, leaning in closer over the table. “Aber gerne! Was für eine Füllung hättest du gerne für deine Kürbisecken? Wir haben die traditionelle Kürbisfüllung oder die örtliche Spezialität, eine Apfelfüllung.”
“Go on, go on!” Blueblood whispered. “Don’t act surprised, either!”
“Ich, ähm... d-die Traditionelle klingt gut,” Sweetie stammered. “Oh... ich wusste nicht, dass du Germane sprichst Pinkie.”
“Tue ich auch nicht!” Pinkie Pie said, grinning. “Aber ich liebe deinen Akzent! Ich bin gleich zurück mit deiner Bestellung.” She stopped and looked at Blueblood. “Oh, ich Dummerchen! Ich hab ganz vergessen deine Bestellung aufzunehmen! Was hättest du gerne?”
“Pourriez-vous s'il vous plait m'apporter votre dessert le plus décadent ainsi que du thé ou du café? Tout ira bien, ma chère,” Blueblood replied.
“Bien sûr! Nous avons des éclairs! Ils sont délicieux!” Pinkie Pie promptly replied.
“Forse no, potrebbe essere che un bruttiboni vada meglio con del caffè.”
“Sì, sì! è giusto capitato che io ne abbia fatti un po' stamattina! Li porterò subito!” Pinkie Pie said excitedly. “Ed hanno il mio ingrediente speciale! Sono sicura che ti piaceranno tantissimo!”
“Un secondo...li ha fatti stamattina?” Blueblood blinked.
“Mi si è mosso lo zoccolo sinistro seguito dalla mia criniera diventar ancora più riccioluta e poi un momento di vertigine paralizzante! Quello poteva solo significare che oggi dovevo fare dei bruttiboni! Ed eccoti qui! non è grandioso?!”
“Yes... quite,” Blueblood said weakly.
“Okey Dokey Lokey! Iway’llay ebay ightray ackbay!” Pinkie Promised and skipped off to the kitchen, leaving behind a flabbergasted Sweetie Belle and a rather perturbed Blueblood. He watched her go, leaning back and almost falling off his chair in the process.
“Huh,” was all he could say. “Well, then, Sweetie,” Blueblood began a moment later, delicately raising a cup of dark tea to his lips. Ordering it with his breakfast had caused Pinkie to bemoan the Prince’s choice of ‘leaf mash’ instead of something nice and sweet. “I hope my so-called sister’s reaction was similarly entertaining when you showed her what you could do. Please tell me she at least gawked a little bit?”
Sweetie Belle frowned, blinking a couple of times and looking at her surroundings again.
“Princess Cadance?” she murmured and shook her head. “She... She took it in stride, actually,” Sweetie explained, images of Her Serene Highness walking around her as she encouraged Sweetie to hit a specific note flashing in her mind.
The Princess was strict and had little patience for those who wasted her time or failed to perform. It was not wise to disappoint her, and she was not impressed easily. Not even by finding out her new student could speak enough Germane to sing in it convincingly.
“I just feel a little tired, Blueblood...” she admitted.
Which was strange, since normally she woke up after every loop just the same as the one before. Maybe she was just starting to feel emotionally exhausted?
“It’s a lot of work.” Sweetie punctuated the statement with an unwelcome yawn. “Maybe I need to take another break? Maybe vary things a little? I love practicing, but the only place to do it here is at home. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen sis staring at me with her mouth hanging open like that... unless I destroyed one of her sweaters... or used her gems... or turned Opalescence purple... and there was that one time when I accidentally made her ponyquinns come to life—"
“Of course, of course,” Blueblood agreed, understanding all too well how one could become overloaded by repetition. “Take your time. I’m simply looking forward to hearing you sing something proper and elegant. Why, it would make for a memorable Gala!” He sipped his tea, once, twice, and slowly lowered the glass demitasse - one of the Cake family’s personal fine china. “For us, if nopony else. It always seems to be ruined before Auntie’s Entry into Sunlight plays.“
Sweetie chuckled, remembering all the different versions of chaos that Blueblood had told her about, some seemingly predestined and some caused by himself. “Well, maybe. I would need to know what they were playing. Not only that, but see if I could get some practice with one of the musicians first, so that I know how they play and what to expect... Princess Cadance said that it takes a lot of practice to really get things right.”
“That shouldn’t be difficult. This year, I hired the Canterlot Symphony Orchestra Company to play,” Blueblood said, thoughts drifting back to the inevitable night’s festivities. “They have a very impressive string section this year, with Miss Octavia on cello. I could certainly make introductions if you like.”
“Miss Octavia?” Sweetie’s eyes reflected her smile. “Oh! Her! Yes, please! That would be amazing! Did I tell you Octavia actually sponsored my schooling... or rather one of my counterpart’s schooling? I’ve always wanted to meet her!”
“She did?” He sounded surprised. “From what I’ve heard of her, she’s a Canterlot-born earth pony, through and through. As a rule, they try and keep to high society. ‘Unicorns without a horn’ and all. I’m surprised she’d know anypony from Ponyville...”
“Well, I’m not entirely sure, although she was friends with a unicorn called Vinyl Scratch... and I’ve seen her in Ponyville before,” Sweetie recalled. “But I haven’t seen either of them around Ponyville at all in any of my resets here. Maybe they both live in Canterlot?”
“Octavia most certainly lives in Canterlot. The Orchestra are all Duchy residents, part of the reason I paid for them.” He leaned back slightly, a goofy grin parting his lips. “I can see why she’s a crowd favorite, too. She has that smoldering look. Very sexy.”
Sweetie’s eyes widened. “Did you sleep with her?”
Blueblood suddenly and violently coughed at the abrupt question, bringing a nearby napkin - a frilly pink thing - to his mouth. “Sleep with her? Aren’t you a little young to ask about that sort of thing?”
Sweetie frowned a bit. “Why not? I sleep with Apple Bloom and Scootaloo all the time! We have a lot of fun!”
“What?” Sweetie asked in response to the stallion’s suspiciously long silence. “You’re looking at me in a weird way.”
Blueblood shook his head and shuddered at the same time. “Either you’re a very perverted little filly, you’re doing this on purpose, or we’re having a miscommunication. Please, Auntie, please let it be the latter.”
“What? You never had a sleepover?” Sweetie asked, sounding almost horrified. Her little hooves clasped her cheeks in shock. “B-but! Those are so much fun! You have pillow fights, play truth-or-dare, and plan how to get your cutie mark until you pass out, or comb each other’s manes, or talk about colts, or—”
“Ah. No. No. I never had that sort of sleep over,” Blueblood replied, and she could see his smile return behind his napkin. “Mine tend to be a bit more... physically stimulating. Less sleeping and more wrestling, so to speak.” He giggled in a very un-Princely way. “I say, why don’t you ask Miss Rarity about it sometime? I’m sure she’ll tell you all about adult sleepover parties.”
“You think so?” Sweetie tapped her chin thoughtfully. “I do know she had a sleepover with Twilight and Applejack once, and it involved magic, ropes and lots of shouting... was that the same kind of thing?”
“Yes. Yes it is.”
“Okay, then!” Sweetie smiled. “I’ll ask her later!”
Blueblood was just on the verge of imparting more gems of insight and wisdom to the curious filly, when a pair of pink forearms found a perch on the top of his head. Sweetie was just thankful that, for once, she wasn't the victim of Pinkie's latest appearance out of nowhere. Blueblood's eyes glanced up to where a pair of inscrutable blues leaned down to stare back at him.
"Is there a problem?" he inquired, rather calmly. Mrs Cake, standing behind the counter, looked about to have a panic attack at the sight of her employee accosting one of Equestria's royals.
"I felt compelled to investigate," Pinkie Pie explained.
"Do not listen to this naughty, naughty pony!" Pinkie said to Sweetie Belle, pointing down at the stallion underhoof. "Just because some ponies have a sleepover with magic and ropes and shouting and riding crops and safety words and a tub full of jelly, doesn't mean anything naughty has to happen."
“But probably will,” Blueblood argued.
“Probably,” Pinkie admitted, and the two ‘mature adults’ nodded in unison.
Sweetie Belle slowly shook her head. “I don’t get it.”
Maybe asking Rarity would shed some light on it...
“No. No. No. No. No! I-I really do not wish to talk about that! Don’t you have school? Yes, school! Wonderful school!” Rarity levitated her little sister out the door. “Ask mom! No, wait... she’s still out. Ask Cheerilee! That’s her job, isn’t it?!”
“But sis!” Sweetie complained from outside. “School’s been over for three hours!”
“Oh. Oh. Oh, um.” Cheerilee gave a distinctly uncomfortable cough, tactically retreating behind her desk. “I don’t - that is, I don’t really cover that topic in this class. Or this grade, for that matter. It’s an, um, advanced subject?”
“But what if a pony is ahead of the curve?” Sweetie insisted, putting her hooves down on the desk and refusing to budge. “I’m really curious!”
Drops of sweat began to bead around Cheerilee’s forehead. “I don’t think...”
“Actually,” Diamond Tiara chimed in. “I was sort of wondering about that, too.”
“Us too!” Snips said, raising Snails’ hoof for him.
“Oh! Hey! Ah get it! Ya’ll mean gettin’ laid, right?” Apple Bloom piped in from the back of the class. “Is that what we’re talkin’ about?”
Immediately a hoof shot up into the air. “Miss Cheerilee?” Silver Spoon called. “What does ‘getting laid’ mean?”
“If adults are doing it, that means Rainbow Dash is doing it!” Scootaloo declared, jumping out of her chair. “Quick! What’s getting laid, and how can I do it too?!”
Sweetie Belle glared at Blueblood. The big, stupid, smug jerk. “I’m not talking to you about sleepovers ever - ever - again.”
“A shame. I have so much knowledge to share with impressionable young minds.” Blueblood sipped his tea with all due self-satisfaction. Sweetie was sorely tempted to kick him.
“You do know that in this world I’m just a filly, right? And that Miss Cheerilee had to impart a lesson she wasn’t going to teach for at least two more years. And, in fact, clearly postponed in my own timeline.”
“Oh?” he asked with a titter. “Did she show you the old government movie reel? Husbandry for Dummies? Foaling and You? That sort of thing?”
“She tried, but Apple Bloom was laughing so hard she had to quit... and besides...” Sweetie shook her head. What had been seen could not be unseen, and what Apple Bloom knew about certain things could not be un-known. “I said I wasn’t talking to you about it again. Ever again. Now, just give me Octavia’s address.”
“Spoilsport,” Blueblood groused. His magic flared, and a slip of paper floated down to the table next to Sweetie’s plate, landing with a flourish. On it was an itinerary of comings and goings. “I tracked down Miss Octavia while you were... distracted by your research. She isn’t alone, though. A pony is visiting her and remains at the apartment until both leave for the evening: Octavia to rendezvous with the orchestra prior to the Gala, and this other one a few hours later. After the Gala fiasco, both usually end up drinking rather heavily together at a bar and nightclub called ‘After Hours.’”
“That might be Vinyl Scratch...” Sweetie said after a moment. Then a thoughtful look crossed her face. “Hey, Blueblood? Does drinking at a bar really help you relax? Maybe we should do it sometime!”
“A little drink now and then can put the mind at ease,” he answered, rather more carefully than usual this early in a morning loop. “And a lot of it can help a pony forget... for a time. You’re a little young to drink anything more than watered wine, though.”
“Oh,” Sweetie said, sighing a bit as she considered the paper next to her plate. “Well, maybe I should just go ahead and meet Octavia... could you give me a ride to Canterlot?”
“It would be my pleasure,” Blueblood assured her with an amiable smile. “And...” he just had to add, “no, I didn’t have a sleepover with Miss Octavia. I most certainly did think about it, though.”
Sweetie made a sour face. “Still gross.”
Sweetie Belle stared at the building in front of her. The address was correct, and she had triple-checked with various sources and contacts of Blueblood to make sure she had it right.
It wasn't in the best condition. The whole thing was uninspiring, built out of reddish brown limestone bricks with little to no decoration or ornamentation, other than the odd pot outside a window with some flowers growing in it and some old ironwork. Nor was it in the best area of town, which was unexpected, given Octavia's apparent fame in the universe where she had first heard of the musician. Strangely, Blueblood had told her that this was an ‘upscale’ house in this part of Canterlot. It sure didn’t look all that great.
Steeling herself, Sweetie Belle trotted up to the bell and rang the apartment number. She waited for a bit before hearing a cultured voice from above.
“Who is it?”
“Hello?” Sweetie stepped back, looking up at the window that had been opened on the third floor. “Is this where Octavia Philharmonica lives? I'd like to talk to her!”
“Oh, one moment! I'll buzz you in!” the voice replied.
Sweetie nodded to herself. This was her chance.
“Miss Belle, I'm afraid that I have to practice for the Grand Galloping Gala tonight. As much as I would love to tutor you in music, today would not be the best day to start. Never mind the fact that I've never taught anypony before!”
“Pleeeease?” Sweetie pleaded. “I came all the way from Ponyville to ask you!”
Octavia shook her head. “I can't, I'm sorry. Maybe some other time?”
“There won’t be another time,” Sweetie muttered quietly.
Octavia clearly overheard. “What was that?”
“Aww, come on, 'Tavi!” another mare shouted, poking her head from between a pair of red curtains that separated the studio apartment’s sitting room and pantry. “Let her practice with you a bit, what's the worst that could happen?”
“Vinyl Scratch, you keep your nose out of this one,” Octavia grumbled. “I would love to tutor her, really, but with my schedule—”
“'Tavi, you've practiced day and night for the last month and a half. You're as ready as you’ll ever be. Teach her a little. Think of it as a break!”
Octavia still hesitated. She turned to look at Sweetie Belle. “But... why me? How did you even hear about me?”
Sweetie Belle cringed. “I-I just...” she trailed off. “M-my sister mentioned you were scheduled to play... she’ll be at the Gala.”
Octavia raised an eyebrow. “Is she working in the kitchens?”
Sweetie shook her head.
“She's... a guest?” Octavia whispered.
Sweetie nodded slowly.
“And she has heard of me?”
Sweetie paused then, very slowly, nodded, keeping her eyes on the mare.
Octavia burst out in a smile. “Yes! YES! YES!” She whirled and hugged Vinyl and Sweetie together in an overjoyed, viselike grip. “Do you know what this means?!”
“That you'll teach me?!” Sweetie asked excitedly.
“That you love me?!” Vinyl teased.
“No!” Octavia cried in ecstasy. “Well, yes, to both, although the second is purely platonic. It means that I'm becoming famous! I thought I got lucky with the Gala tonight, but I have to admit they barely even questioned my ability! I'm being recognized!”
Vinyl chuckled, then got a good look at Sweetie Belle. “Hey, hey, wait a second! I know you! I've seen you and your friends pull out really crazy stunts! What did you call yourselves again? Cutie-saders?”
“Cutie Mark Crusaders,” Sweetie growled. “And yeah, I’ve seen you too, you did that thing for my sister and Hoity Toity. Do you... live here?”
“Hey,” Vinyl chuckled. “That was just the other week! Don't tell me my show was that forgettable! As for the other thing, not really: ‘Tavi and me, we were roommates at the Canterlot Academy of Music. We've been friends ever since the end of our first year.”
“The end of...?” Sweetie frowned. “You didn't get along from the beginning?”
Vinyl scratched the back of her head. “Weeell, we had different tastes in music, friends, and drinks, and our lifestyles didn’t really mesh at first either,” Vinyl admitted. “For example, she likes boring music, I like awesome music; she likes to hang around with uptight bastards, I like to hang out with awesome ponies; she never grasped what a sock tied to a door handle means—”
“One time that happened.”
“Two times,” Vinyl corrected before resuming her little speech. “She likes single malt whiskey and I—”
“You like orange juice with vodka or rum and cola,” Octavia interrupted. “A completely classless and tasteless drink.”
“Is it really that bad?” Sweetie asked.
“It's good stuff, kid, she just makes pouty faces at it because it’s not a straight drink.” Vinyl grinned. “I still need to get ‘Tavi to try some of those.”
“Don’t call me ‘Tavi’,” Octavia glared at Vinyl. “You’ll have her saying it now.”
Vinyl bowed. “Always aiming t'please, milady.”
“My lady,” Octavia said, and Sweetie’s eyes became half lidded. No wonder Blueblood liked this mare. “At least pretend you know how to speak properly, Vinyl.”
The neon-maned mare pouted, crossing her forelegs in a huff. “I got my minor in modern Equestrian, I think that entitles me to say milady if I please.”
Octavia sighed. “Okay...” Rolling her violet eyes, she turned to Sweetie again. “I think I have the practice cello from when I was a filly somewhere around here... somewhere. I suppose we can practice a little, but please do be careful with it!”
“Oh, don't worry,” Sweetie Belle said, “I can levitate heavy objects for hours so weight will not be a problem! I'll be extra careful!”
Coming back a couple seconds later from one of the closets, Octavia raised an eyebrow as she hoofed over a cello that was roughly as tall as she was while standing on all fours. “Who said anything about levitating? I don't use a horn. If you're learning under me, you're learning how to do it with your hooves.”
“My hooves?” Sweetie's smile faded a bit. “Oh.”
“Keep your back straight!” Octavia warned sternly. “This is not a natural position for us, so it's imperative you are careful!”
“...and that’s my report.” Sweetie finished, head bowed low.
‘Cadance,’ Sweetie had learned, preferred that those who served her and knew her true face demonstrated their obsequiousness though more than a mere quarter bow or curtsey. Somewhere along the line, Chrysalis had learned that ponies bowed most deeply for a real Royal Princess and had concluded that they should then put noses to the floor in the presence of a Queen.
“Fascinating. I was already aware of much of it, but you impress me with your speed and ability, Sweetie Belle!” Chrysalis, still wearing her alicorn disguise, stroked her chin with a gold-gilded hoof. “Now, as to your request...”
“Yes?” Sweetie asked, looking up at the so called Princess. She always did that: trailing off when it came to her end of the bargain, wanting to draw things out.
“Let it not be said I am not a... mare of her word,” the changeling Queen continued. “You were wise to come to me. If we are to prepare you for future missions we do need to train your voice. We shall start with your vibrato. Take a deep breath and show some promise or I will find the changeling that is sponsoring you and she will rue the day she brought you before me.”
“That's not how you hold the bow; you are supposed to hold it straight, like so... no, keep it up like I said,” Octavia said, walking around Sweetie and eyeing her critically.
“The pony Princess wrote a letter to the Griffon King.”
“D-der Pony Prinz hat eine Geschichte an König Griffon...” Sweetie stammered.
“Close! But you made a little mistake. Take a moment to think about it and try again,” Blueblood encouraged.
Sweetie paused and stared down at the scroll under her hooves. She wrote out the sentence again, checked the grammar and spelling, and saw the error. Smiling, she licked her lips and tried again.
“Die Pony Prinzessin hat einen Brief an König Griffin gesendet!”
“Good!” Blueblood said, clopping a hoof in cheerful acclaim. “Now, try this one...”
“Watch your back, Sweetie Belle. I can see you're really trying but you're forcing it too much,” Octavia intoned, watching as her student shuffled in place, trying to work her body into a better position, but only managing to fall back to all fours. “Look,” she demonstrated, easily standing on her hind legs next to Sweetie, and pretending to hold an invisible Cello. “Like this. See how my legs are spread a bit more than yours? This allows me to balance properly without putting the strain on my back.”
Sweetie observed Octavia’s position for a moment, then pushed herself back onto her hind legs in a much better imitation of Octavia’s posture. “Like this?”
“Yes!” Octavia clapped with her hooves. “Much better!”
‘Cadance’ sat at a place of honor among the many noble ponies at the table, her personal standard trailing behind her to the left of Twilight’s mother at the head of the table. The Sparkle family dining hall was larger than their daughter’s library, rising up more than two stories to a vaulted mural covering the entire length of the ceiling, depicting shootings stars and superimposed constellations in posture. Shields and banners hung down from it, depicting the relatives, friends, and other families in attendance.
Next to ‘Cadance’ was her blushing husband-to-be, dressed in a fine doublet and guard’s uniform: Shining Armor. Next to him sat another knight from his guard, then the knight’s marefriend, then two elderly ponies, then a rich lady with a small reef’s worth of pearls around her neck, and then a middle-aged stallion with enormous muttonchops that just had to get in the way of his eating... then two more ponies... and then finally Sweetie Belle herself. The sad thing was that she was still halfway to the head of the table, seated where she was.
It was a good thing that Blueblood had packed a dress or two for her. After that first loop when she wore one of Twilight’s dresses from when she was a filly... Sweetie shuddered. She wasn’t Rarity, but she knew when she looked silly. Some mare in the family had a very weird sense of taste. There was Twilight, yes, but she had to have gotten it from somewhere.
Carefully cupping her rather hot demitasse of black tea over one hoof, while holding the tiny ring with the other, Sweetie took her best hoity toity sip - it helped having seen Blueblood do this day after day after day - and quietly listened to the conversation around the table. Glancing down towards the head of the table, she caught one pony in particular returning her measured appraisal.
‘Cadance’ smiled, nodded once, and went back to playfully feeding her embarrassed husband a fork-full of leafy greens.
“But, Cadance, you’ve hardly eaten anything!” Shining Armor protested, biting down on the mouthful. More than a few onlookers cooed at the sight of the loving couple.
“I’m eating my fill as we speak,” ‘Cadance’ replied, patting his cheek with a hoof.
That night, the ‘Princess’ proved to be in an unusually good mood. She threw the waiting Sweetie Belle a black cloak with the six-pointed Sparkle star emblazoned on a dark gold shield.
“I would have expected you to leave by now,” she said, heading for the door. “But since you are still here, and as you did not prove yourself entirely incompetent earlier, I thought we could practice some more outside. Where we won’t be disturbed.”
That night, Sweetie finished the national anthem and Cadance only chastised her twice. A new record!
“That's not bad for the first time Miss Belle, but you shouldn't put so much weight on the instrument; maintaining your balance is imperative for both keeping the cello stable and your own comfort.”
“S-Sweetie Belle?!” Rarity gasped, making her way into the small circle of ponies gathered together around her sister, of all ponies, and a grinning Prince Blueblood.
“Oh, hi, Rarity!” Sweetie Belle waved cheerfully. “Come join us!” She turned to look at a particularly severe-looking pony of advanced age. His cutie mark was a crowned shield outside the letter ‘B’. “Erlaube mir meine Schwester Rarity vorzustellen. Sie ist eins der Elemente der Harmonie und eine großartige Modeschöpferin!”
“Es ist mir eine Freude sie kennen zu lernen, Fräulin Rarity,” the older gentlecolt said cordially, smiling at her. “Wir haben eine wirklich interessante Unterhaltung, falls du dazustoßen möchtest.”
Rarity, however, was staring at Sweetie Belle as if she had sprouted another head.
“Ich muss mich für meine Schwester entschuldigen,” Sweetie Belle said, putting her hoof on Rarity’s foreleg and making her start in surprise as she was dragged back to reality. “Ich denke nicht, dass sie Germane bereits gemeistert hat.”
“Sweetie Belle...” Rarity’s eyes were wide. “H-how are you speaking Germane?”
“Rarity du Dummerchen,” Sweetie giggled and winked at the older pony. “Ich vermute meine Schwester ist zu abgelenkt durch die Gala und ihre Begleitung um an unserer Unterhaltung teilzunehmen, Herr Warmblüter, aber um auf das ursprüngliche Thema zurück zu kommen: Ich kann ihre Position im Bezug auf die Moral des 'Handelns um glücklich zu sein' verstehen, aber lassen sie uns nicht die Worte des berühmten Kant vergessen; "Moral ist keine Doktrin die uns vorschreibt wie wir uns selber glücklich machen, sondern wie wir uns der Glückseeligkeit würdig erweisen." Ich denke, dass er hier einen guten Punkt hat, denn es gehört in der Tat mehr zur Glückseeligkeit als nur der einfache Zustand des 'glücklich seins'."
Warmblüter chuckled. “Sie schneiden da einen wichtigen Punkt an, Fräulein Belle, ich—”
“I-I’m sorry...” Rarity swooned. “I think... I’m... going to—”
Three ponies were barreled out of the way by her sofa, which made it just in time to catch her.
Sweetie Belle chuckled nervously. “Oh... ja, meine Schwester tut dies. Oft.”
“Ich finde es ehrlich gesagt ganz bezaubernd! Entschuldigen sie mich bitte.” Blueblood raised a drink to his northern relation and cantered towards Rarity’s fainting couch. Quite a few ponies were staring at it in dismay, one of them even gesturing from the couch to the door at the end of the Menagerie, no doubt wondering just where the heck it had come from.
“Uhm, yeah, es war wirklich nett mit ihnen zu reden, Herr Warmblüter,” Sweetie hastily said, following Blueblood and waving back at the bemused old stallion. “Und Ihr Schönheitsfleck gefällt mir wirklich außerordentlich!”
“My word,” he muttered, drinking a sip from his glass. “What an unusual little filly.”
“My hooves hurt. My legs hurt...” Sweetie Belle groaned, leaning her head on the table. “My back hurts...” she mumbled. “And my brain feels like it’s oozing out of my ears.”
“Such is life,” Blueblood stated, taking a sip of his tea. “You'll get better. You always get better. You'll see.”
“But... it's hard! And this time I can't learn much from a book! I mean, learning how to read the notes was easy, but when I tried to play a single note I broke one of the strings! And it snapped at my foreleg! Look!” She showed him her foreleg, which was a bit red under the coat where one of the strings had nearly drawn blood. “It hurt!”
Blueblood chuckled. “Didn't you say before that you wanted to meet Octavia and sing with her playing? What better way to get to know her than taking classes? And if I'm going to be spending my oh-so valuable time drilling Equestrian languages into your adorable little head, then you should spend the rest of the time productively as well.”
Sweetie groaned. “But I have all the time in the world!”
Blueblood hesitated. “Time and patience do not always trot together at the same pace. Though, perhaps you should take another break. After all...”
Sweetie looked away. “I know,” she said after a moment. “I've thought about it... Blueblood, finding Twilight’s fragment here, getting home, it could take years to solve.”
The Prince nodded, a little more solemn than his usual. “Any time you wish, feel free to take a few days for yourself. You don’t have to keep at just one thing until you master it. Just concentrate on something useful right now that you really want to learn. I’d be happy to spend a few loops with you working on spells or even traveling around the country. I’ve personally found learning basic teleport quite invaluable, even aside from my initial Gala plans. Whatever you like!”
Sweetie sighed, and nodded. “I think I’ll just take a little break today. Maybe spend more time with Rarity or Apple Bloom and Scootaloo. I'll go back again tomorrow.”
Blueblood smiled, brightly. “Good! And while you're at it, I have a suggestion for my little sister and her lessons. You have a lovely voice, Sweetie, but... frankly, poor volume control.”
“My point exactly.”
“Vinyl! Tell your damned student to tone down the volume! Need I remind you that you're a guest in my home?”
“Buuuut Tavi! How else can Sweetie learn to 'pump it up'? You don’t want her jam to be dangerously under-pumped, do you?”
“... Heaven forbid.”
Octavia watched, impressed, as Sweetie balanced herself on her back legs, keeping straight with very little coaching and holding the bow almost perfectly. If this really was the first time this little unicorn had done all of that... she might have just found a genius. A once in a lifetime-
Sweetie then proceeded to draw the bow across the strings and Octavia quickly changed her thoughts.
“O-Okay! Stop! I said, stop!” she all but shouted. “Go slow, very slow, and when you return to your original position, turn it slightly, like this.”
Sweetie took a long, deep breath and relaxed.
“You’ve become quite adequate, Sweetie Belles,” Chrysalis said, nodding at the performance she had just heard.
“It’s Sweetie Belle!” Sweetie huffed.
“Yes, yes, I know,” Chrysalis waved her hoof dismissively. “You should be quite prepared for infiltrating the world of theater, though I’m not yet sure why it is necessary.” She frowned, looking at Sweetie Belle consideringly. “Wouldn’t you prefer to work within a noble family? You are already well-placed to infiltrate one. How are your forgery skills?”
“Uh... not that good,” Sweetie confessed. Don’t tell me I have to learn that now!
But Chrysalis merely shrugged. “Pity.”
Sweetie Belle sighed in relief, but then looked curiously at her current ‘mentor’. “Um, Queen Chrysalis... I meant to ask you... how do you know how to sing? It isn’t magic, so you couldn’t have copied it, could you?”
Chrysalis was silent for a bit, apparently musing whether she should reply or not. After all, Sweetie might be a trained and reliable spy but she was still just a pony. Finally, she relented, pleased by a night of feasting on her fiance’s affection. “I learned it myself...” she said, taking a couple of steps away from Sweetie and exposing her back to the pony; a truly grand gesture, as it showed that she trusted Sweetie Belle to that degree. “...once I became bound to Princess Cadance and took her voice as my own.”
She looked back over her shoulder at the canny filly. “It was necessary... yes, and I have even enjoyed it, at times.” She smiled, in what could be the only time ever that Sweetie had seen the Queen-to-be genuinely do so. “I sing to my brood, now, and I do believe I will teach it to the changeling who succeeds me as well.”
Sweetie smiled back and bowed. “I’m sure they will enjoy it too, my Queen.”
“What do you think?” Sweetie Belle asked.
“So, let me get this straight, you're a journalist for your school newspaper and you want to do a report on me?” Octavia asked Sweetie Belle, who nodded. The cellist took a deep breath and smiled. “Well, I suppose I have time for a short interview,” she said. “But, why me? And why come all the way over here from Ponyville?”
“Well, my sister is attending the Gala tonight,” Sweetie Belle said, her horn lighting up as she pulled out her notebook and a pen. “So I begged her to let me come over and let me interview you! You're one of my favorite musicians!”
“Oh, well, thank you!” Octavia's smile grew. “I'm honestly surprised you would have heard of me. Most colts and fillies don't really listen to classical music.”
Sweetie grinned proudly. “I have good taste.”
Vinyl Scratch poked her head out and looked at Sweetie Belle silently for a few seconds. “No, you don't!”
“I just never expected her to have put so much into it,” Sweetie said, swirling her milkshake and eyeing Blueblood's after-dinner wine. “I mean, I expected it to be hard, given how difficult it's been for me these last few months but... she put so much of her life into it. She sacrificed friendships, playing with other fillies and even spending time with her family for it.”
“Well, it is her passion,” Blueblood said after a moment. “What did you expect? Octavia's life and career are one and the same: her music. I rather admire ponies like that... ponies with a purpose in life.”
Sweetie sighed, falling forward to rest her chin on the table. “Yeah. And I still don't have any idea what I'm going to do with myself, and she knew even before she got her cutie mark.” She tore her eyes from his wine glass and took a slow slurp of her milkshake. “Maybe, one of these loops, I’ll finally find out.” She contemplated Ponyville through the windows of the Sugarcube Corner and nodded. “I need a break from learning... music... I think I’ll change subjects for a little while.”
Blueblood raised an eyebrow. “And what do you have in mind?”
“Twilight?” Spike called from the entrance. “You have a visitor!”
“Didn't I tell you I was busy, Spike?”
“Yeah, but she insisted and...” Spike just shrugged.
Twilight Sparkle sighed and lowered the three books she had been consulting and looked towards the entrance to the library, where Sweetie Belle awaited.
“Sweetie Belle!” Twilight smiled, motioning with her hoof to approach. “Shouldn't you be in class?”
Sweetie Belle shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Eh, we had a test on Unicorn History today. I wrote Miss Cheerilee five pages on Starswirl dealing with the dragons and she let me go early.”
Twilight nodded. “That's great, Sweetie! I didn't know that Starswirl the Bearded was part of your school curriculum!”
“Yeah...” Sweetie's smile was a bit forced. “But, now I'm done and everypony else was busy, so I came here to see what you were doing!”
“Oh,” Twilight scooted over to the side, allowing Sweetie to sit next to her. “Well, since tonight we're taking a carriage to the Castle, I figured I would transform some mice into horses to pull it!”
Sweetie Belle nodded. “Oh! Is it a Polymorph spell?”
Twilight shook her head. “Good guess, but it's not a Polymorph spell.”
“Oh!” Sweetie Belle tapped her forehead with her hoof. “Of course! The Polymorph spell wouldn't last that long! So I guess you're using a spell that is more specialized in its purpose, and at the same time has a longer duration.”
“Well done!” Twilight said, clapping her hooves together. “This is a basic transformation spell, which I am combining with holding and timer spells.”
“So when you transform the mice into horses, the holding spell activates, making them keep the shape, and the timer spell will affect the holding spell, dispelling it after a set amount of time!” Sweetie frowned. “But, isn't it more efficient to use the polymorph spell? I think you can increase the amount of time it lasts.”
“Well, yes,” Twilight conceded. “However, to make them retain their form for so many hours, I would have to use a lot of magic, and since I'm going to the Gala myself, I want to be well rested! The Princess and I are going to have the whole night to ourselves, and I have so much to talk to her about!”
“I see...” Sweetie sighed, knowing full well how Twilight’s evening would go. “Well, you thought it over thoroughly.”
“Of course!” Twilight piped. “You know what they say! Whenever things seem like they’ll take forever...”
Sweetie Belle smiled and sang out with Twilight: “Trust your pal the checklist and keep it together!”
The pair broke into giggles and tapped hooves.
“Ooookay,” Spike said after a moment. “I think I'll go mop the kitchen. Yes, I think I'll do that.”
“So,” Sweetie began after a moment of enjoying the companionable silence, “could you teach it to me?”
Twilight bit her lower lip. “Well, it's a bit complicated, and I'm just learning it myself, not to mention that you might be a bit young to even try it...”
Sweetie's eyes seemed to grow, her pleading look bursting through Twilight's defenses almost unhindered. She was even less resistant to it than Blueblood! Poor, poor adults. Sweetie vowed never to be such a sucker when she grew up.
“...but I guess we can study together? You seemed to be well informed...” Twilight let the last word fade. “Wait, just how do you know all that?”
“I–” Sweetie cringed. “Well...”
“I, uh... came from another dimension where I learned from you and now I just need to learn more?”
Sweetie sighed. Waving her hoof at Twilight. “If I have to re-tell my story one more time in this world...
“...but I guess we can study together? You seemed to be well informed...” Twilight let the last word fade. “Wait, just how do you know all that?”
“Rarity is, in reality, an exceptionally talented sorceress, who hides behind a facade of sewing and whining so that her true knowledge and powers are not sought after by the general public... but she’s too busy making dresses today to give me my lesson, and I decided to seek the second-best option?”
“...but I guess we can study together? You seemed to be well informed...” Twilight let the last word fade. “Wait, just how do you know all that?”
“I–” Sweetie cringed. “Well...”
“When she arrived from the moon, I got bathed in the necromantic powers of Nightmare Moon, inadvertently absorbing her knowledge of certain magicks.”
Twilight sighed. “Sweetie, if you’re not going to tell me the truth...”
“But she did teach me some magic!” Sweetie protested. “Look!”
“I-I well... um... Trixietaughtme.”
Twilight blinked. “Wait, what?”
“Trixietaughtmeawhileago and... um, I'vesortabeenstudyingbymyself...” Sweetie mumbled quickly.
“Okay,” Twilight sighed, raising a hoof. “Did you just say that Trixie taught you? As in the ‘Great and Powerful’ Trixie?”
Sweetie nodded meekly.
“...and that you've been studying by yourself?” Twilight pressed.
“Yes,” Sweetie nodded. “With some help here and there from Lyra, Rarity and others.”
“Sweetie... this is amazing!” Twilight gushed. “And you've been studying by yourself since then?! That's great! What have you learned so far?”
“Well... why don’t we go over this spell and discuss it? That way you can find out how much I know!”
Twilight chuckled. “Sure, Sweetie. Let’s try that.”
Sweetie sighed, sitting down next to Twilight. One day I’ll get the hang of this... but as Twilight started to describe the spell process Sweetie felt herself grow cold.
“One day I’ll get the hang of this?” Sweetie Belle repeated aloud. Oh, Celestia, what am I thinking?!
“Sweetie Belle?” Twilight asked, having turned to face her at some point. “Are you feeling okay? You don’t look so good.”
“I-I...” Sweetie stammered. “I’m sorry, Twilight,” she stood up. “I’ve... just remembered something... I need to talk to Blueblood.”
Twilight’s eyes went wide. “Blueblood? Prince Blueblood? Why would you—”
“It’s complicated,” Sweetie muttered, “and really something that’s not going to be relevant by tomorrow... at least to you.” She looked at her would-be-mentor apologetically, slowly backing out of the room. “It’s been fun, Twilight.”
Sweetie Belle glanced around Sugarcube Corner, raising her eyebrow at the large tray of sweets and bread Prince Blueblood had ordered. With far more skill than - in Rarity’s own words - a ‘filthy uncaring brute of a stallion’ should have, he balanced the whole tray on his back with as much ease as Pinkie Pie, while levitating their drinks. Setting down the pair of milkshakes, he proceeded to float over the plate of pastries to the center of the table, which, once down, almost obscured him from her line of sight.
“Well then, Sweetie Belle,” Blueblood said jovially. “You seemed very serious this morning about discussing something today, so I figured we could use all the sweets in the shop to help pass the time more amiably.”
“Okay?” Sweetie tried to keep herself calm at the sight of so much sugar. Free sugar! “I’ve been thinking about returning to my quest and figuring out where Twilight’s fragment is. I’m pretty sure it’s not here in Ponyville.”
The royal stallion sighed, softly. “I see. And you would like my help.”
“Well, yeah,” Sweetie said, and tilted her head when he closed his eyes. “That’s not a problem is it? You said—”
“It isn’t a problem, Sweetie,” he assured her, eyes opening only to drift off to the storefront windows. “It simply isn’t what I expected. What are you thinking?”
“I don’t really know if they’re related, but I thought I’d ask... just how much do we know about these time loops? You must know more than I do!”
He grunted in what could have been agreement. “I have had longer to experiment.”
“You talked to the Princesses about it, didn’t you?”
“They were not helpful in that respect,” he answered, levitating a thimble of honey to add to his tea. “Auntie Celestia doesn’t believe anypony alive to be capable of magic on this scale, herself included. Temporal magic isn’t her forte regardless, and there’s no evidence that it is actual time magic and not some other form of spellcraft with similar results. One loop, she told me...” His eyes narrowed, and he touched his chest with a scoff.
“Nothing helpful,” he concluded. “Auntie Luna was also of no help on the spell front. I even interrogated a few ponies from the Quartz Clan, who swore this was no magic of theirs.” Blueblood examined a slice of banana chocolate bread, weighing well after purchasing it whether to eat it or not. “So! To summarize: despite being a Prince of Equestria with nearly limitless resources at my disposal and two effectively immortal and godlike relatives, I have no idea what’s causing the loops. Not a bloody clue really.”
Sweetie’s eyebrow twitched. “Oh, come on! You have to have an idea! Or -or something!”
“Would you believe ‘a wizard did it’?” He chuckled, and nibbled at a corner of the bread. “Well, it would have to be an extraordinary wizard. Don’t tell me you have some ideas?”
“Starswirl the Bearded?” Sweetie offered weakly. “No! Starswirl the Bearded’s zombie ghost!”
“One can not be both zombie and ghost,” Blueblood objected. “It would be like... a skeleton that turns into a werewolf. Utter nonsense.”
“I don’t know! As far as I know this is beyond anypony I’ve ever heard of!”
“Then I am afraid we are as we were,” he replied. “Clueless.”
“I refuse to just give up! I am the apprentice of Twilight Sparkle!” Sweetie told him, trying to keep the determination in her voice. “She made me read lots of books, and I’ve talked to... um... five, no, six, versions of her! There has to be something we’re missing!” Sweetie sighed and poked at a donut, the energy ebbing out of her. “And did I mention she made me read a lot of books? And quote them? She’d know what to do... I miss her.”
Sweetie sighed, melancholy settling in. I’ve had a long time to look for her here, but what did I do? Learned to sing. Learned to play the cello. Learned Germane. What am I doing? Am I just going to stay here and repeat things? Learn until there’s nothing left to learn? She sighed. I need my Twilight. Not the one from here who is friendly, but can never really be my mentor and friend... as much as I can talk to her, or learn from her... she’ll always remain the same.
“We have a Twilight in town. Not her-her, but a her.”
“Well... yeah, but... she forgets me all the time.” Sweetie grumbled. “I almost feel like I don’t exist here. I return every day and if she didn’t know me already I’d be all like: Hi! I’m Sweetie Belle, and you won’t believe me, but I used to be your apprentice in another world!”
Sweetie took a long sip of her milkshake: it was the same flavor she always liked and always drank, but today, it didn’t taste as sweet as it usually did. “I don’t want to spend an eternity trying to get my own friend to remember me and to know that I’m not just some filly!” She growled, then sighed. “It gets old,” she said in a much lower voice.
“Very old,” Blueblood agreed, and despite all the sweets he had ordered for them, he’d hardly eaten any at all. Most that he had placed on his plate languished there. “The time loop,” he explained, growing momentarily serious in answering her question from before. “Auntie suggested Discord, but he’s still petrified for the time being. I’ve sometimes thought that, maybe... what would happen if I freed him? Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do?”
Sweetie raised a hoof, but he shook his head: no.
“Don’t even ask me. That’s the one thing I won’t do.”
Blueblood saw Sweetie scowling into her milkshake, and for a few seconds they sat in silence. As if to put hoof to the eye of the dour mood, Pinkie Pie hopped by, humming happily, a tray of cranberry muffins balanced precariously on her head. Sweetie ignored her, but she noticed Blueblood following her with his eyes.
“You asked what I was doing, back then,” he said, referring to the first loop where she had met him in Sugarcube Corner. “A thought that came to me, before you showed up, was... to make a perfect Gala for those six mares. To do that and hope for some kind of miracle. That’s all I have anymore, Sweetie Belle. That’s all I have. Hope... for a miracle,” he admitted. “Even a drowning pony can just let go of what he’s holding onto. I guess I’m holding on to her-” He pointed to Pinkie Pie, serving a pair of other mares at another table. “To your sister, to her friends, and...” He pointed to the filly. “To you. I will help you look for this fragment, if that is what you want,” Blueblood promised, “but I honestly don’t know where to start looking.”
Sweetie slammed her hoof on the table in frustration. “What am I supposed to do then? Huh? Just keep happily repeating the day until... until...” She searched for a word, for an end to the sentence that could encapsulate her frustration, but like the end to the loops, there was none. “Well, there is no until is there?! I’ll just keep doing this for eternity! I’ll be - I’ll be an old mare in a filly’s body with nothing to look forward to but the same old thing.”
She snorted, viciously biting into a pastry. “I wonder how far I can get before the day sends me back to the beginning. Over and over and over again. I guess I can always help crash the Gala in increasingly destructive ways. Maybe that’s what this world needs: the utter destruction of the most anticipated event of the year, not by Twilight and friends, but by little Sweetie Belle and her mountain of bread and sweets! Maybe I can ruin things better than they ever could! What then, huh? Maybe that’s what I should do!”
She huffed and finished the rest of her milkshake in one last, long slurp... only to grimace as icy veins shot through her head. Blueblood watched her and gave a rumbling sigh under his breath, the type of angry expression one of his breeding at least makes an attempt to conceal.
“Destroy the Gala? I thought the same thing,” he said, finally, and reached over with a hoof to take away her empty milkshake glass. “And I acted on it, and it wasn’t as cathartic as I hoped and dreamed it would be.”
“I - I guess,” Sweetie admitted, hanging her head and glaring down at the table. “I just... I just feel like I’m fraying at the edges... and the more I think about it? The more scared I am.”
There was a pause in the conversation, then, as both ponies turned to see a pair of blue eyes staring at them.
“Gah!” Sweetie shouted sliding her seat back in horror. “Don’t DO that to me!” she shouted at the pink mare that had - apparently - materialized right next to them.
Pinkie Pie sunk lower and lower until she vanished behind the lip of the table. Sweetie Belle observed her departure with a slight sense of dread.
“That one has a particularly bad time at the Gala,” Blueblood elaborated, grinning as Pinkie popped back up.
“She does!?” the party pony exclaimed, hooves in her mane. “Not Pinkie Pie!”
“Sad but true,” Blueblood continued. “Ah, while you’re here, Miss Pie, could I get another iced coffee with cinnamon, is it?”
Pinkie morphed from panic, at the misfortune of her hypothetical future self, to what passed for normalcy. “Milk?”
“Sugar, no milk.”
“Good. Good. Sugar is very good.” Pinkie muttered, and hopped back over to the counter and a rather confused looking Mrs. Cup Cake.
“Anyway,” Blueblood resumed, paying the mare no more mind in favor of his filly friend. “Sooner or later, I am confident we will find this fragment of yours. So long as it is in Equestria and not, say, the moon or the north pole.”
“Hmph. That’s encouraging!” Sweetie grumbled, but seeing Blueblood smiling prompted a weak grin of her own. If the fragment was on the moon then she was pretty much hosed, no matter what. So why worry about it?
“I guess...” she said and looked at Blueblood for a moment, organizing her thoughts before speaking. “My travels through different worlds are tied to fragments of Twilight Sparkle... and, in some worlds they’ve been there for hundreds of years... what if Twilight’s Fragment is what caused this whole thing? Not just my being here,” she explained, “but all of this! It could have appeared here at the exact moment this whole thing started and caused a loop of some sort... although I’ve never seen any of the fragments do that... it might be a possibility!” She hesitated, even less sure of her next bit of speculation: something she had kept to herself until now. “And I think that the fragments are conscious...”
“Conscious?” Blueblood asked, frowning. “Do these... fragments of Miss Sparkle... do they often cause magical disruptions?”
“Not so far... but all of them have reacted in different ways,” Sweetie said, tilting her head as she tried to recall the previous worlds. “In a couple worlds they were nothing more than trinkets, but in another, one had been sharing knowledge with the local Twilight Sparkle, and the last one, it was capable of electrocuting alicorns.” She shrugged. “I have no idea of their capabilities... or their limits.”
“Regardless, Miss Sparkle is the Element of Magic, and to hear my Auntie sing her praises, quite the skilled and powerful unicorn. A fragment of her?” Blueblood considered the possibility that the loops, all of them, had been due to some unknown and unexpected artifact from outside anypony’s realm of experience. “I never would have even imagined the possibility before I met you... say you’re right, Sweetie Belle, how did you find the other fragments?”
“I... have no idea,” Sweetie confessed, cringing. “I usually find them close by and... I-I can sort of feel them, but since I arrived I haven’t ‘felt’ anything. Most of the time they have turned up in really important places related to each world, but here? I don’t know wh—”
“Iced coffee!” Pinkie Pie announced, placing it down in front of Prince Blueblood. “Hey, where did Sweetie Belle go?”
Slowly, Sweetie Belle drifted down to her seat, under the power of her levitation spell. “Please,” she begged, taking hold of Pinkie’s hoof. “Please don’t do that. Please!”
“Do what?” Pinkie Pie asked in confusion, before her head shot up to look at the door. “Ooh! New customer!”
Sweetie watched her go, then banged her forehead against the table. “I hate it when she does that.” She took a deep shuddering breath, before looking up at Blueblood. “Where were we?”
“I find the randomness somewhat endearing, actually. Things get very predictable after four or five hundred repetitions.” Blueblood swirled the ice coffee around in the cup with a minor application of magic. “If you can feel the fragments when in proximity to them, how about I strap you to a flying machine and shoot you all over the country at high speed?”
Sweetie’s eyes went wide. “M-maybe I could get my cutie mark!” she exclaimed, shooting to her hooves and leaning forward excitedly. “Can I bring my friends?”
“Absolutely! Rocketeer cutie marks!” Blueblood leaned over the table slightly. “I was kidding, you know. Though having it done is tempting.”
“Awww,” Sweetie pouted. “And I bet Scootaloo would have been all for it!”
“The appearance of these fragments can’t be entirely random,” the Prince reasoned, not entirely moved by the filly’s pouty expression. “Or else why not in some fathomless cave dug by Diamond Dogs? Why not in a dragon’s lair or a northern waste or even the iced over Old Kingdom? Trawling Equestria for it is possible - granted - but not very efficient, even if we technically have an eternity here to spend on it.”
Sweetie shrugged helplessly. “I really don’t know. Although they’re usually close by.” Her eyes widened. “Wait! What if- what if the crystal appeared somewhere in the castle? That might be why it affected you! You were in Canterlot when it happened, right? Maybe you did something to attract it there?”
“Aside from putting up with Auntie’s usual silliness and... certain things I don’t think you’re old enough to hear... my days prior to the loops were uneventful. Nothing that would attract the interest or ire of Miss Sparkle or a fragment of her.” Blueblood inhaled the sweet and strong aroma of Sugarcube Corner’s iced coffee, and took a long drink while he thought. “But,” he said, when he finished. “If you want to poke around the Royal Palace, I don’t see the harm. We have all sorts of places to hide things there. Secret passages. Hidden dungeons from a thousand years ago. Boarded up reliquaries. Forgotten portals into the cursed catacombs...”
“Ohh! Can we see the forgotten crystal caverns under the castle?!” Sweetie asked, eyes wide. “I’ve wanted to go there since...” she trailed off. “Uh... something happens...” she mumbled, looking down. “A-anyway, we should really try that! When do we start?”
“Whenever you like is fine. When at the palace, feel free to wander around and explore.” Blueblood chuckled, using a fork to cut a small section off of a pastry lathered in frosting. He took care to wipe some of it off. “The exception would be, once the Gala’s in full swing, you may not want to get caught. I do have control over many of the guards, but Celestia and Luna may not be as understanding of your unexpected palace adventures.”
“I can go anywhere?” Sweetie asked slowly, eyes losing focus as he nodded. “You mean I could go to the Royal Library?”
“As many times as you might need,” Blueblood nodded. “Two hundred, three hundred times... it’s all up to how much you want it.”
Sweetie’s eyes widened as she contemplated doing the exact same thing for eternity.
“Blueblood,” Sweetie Belle all but growled, her considerable telekinesis pulling his head, gently but firmly, down until she was eye-level with him. “I need a drink. And this time...” She paused, gritting her teeth. “A milkshake won’t cut it.”
“Sweetie, even I can’t parade a filly around town to get her drunk,” Blueblood stated, looking slightly amused.
“Then just give me your drinks!” Sweetie demanded. “You drink all the time! Nopony will notice! Or we could go to another place where nopony’s around and get drunk there.”
“I’d rather you not just sulk around one of my villas,” he replied, shaking his head.
Sweetie Belle huffed, crossing her forelegs and looking away. “So basically, even if I’m here for a hundred years, you still won’t—”
“Now, now,” Blueblood interrupted, a devious grin crossing his face. “I may have a solution to both our problems. We will need some money and some avaricious archmages. Both easily acquired.”
Sweetie Belle admired her body in the mirror as the magical mists that had surrounded her dissipated. She noticed that she looked pretty much the same as every other time she had aged-up. She was a bit more slender than her sister, her horn a little bit longer... but her mane fell around her face the exact same way as when she was a filly, with the same curls, although the magic that had aged her made them longer to remain proportional. While not as refined-looking as, say, international model du jour, Fleur-de-lis, she was still taller and more slender than her sister if not much older. Sweetie frowned.
“Is there a problem, Miss Belle?” One of the magicians asked.
“N-no...” Sweetie stammered. “I just - well, last time I was this age, I’m pretty sure my horn was a bit shorter.”
“Aging magic can be capricious.”
The response came from another magister, an older unicorn with a parted black robe about his shoulders and a ring around his right foreleg. He was one of three, their colors black and magenta and Canterlot alabaster white - her own coat color. The latter was a mare and the youngest of the trio, and also the most richly clothed in sapphires and crusted silver. It was crystal clear how Prince Blueblood had arranged for the less than orthodox up-aging of a young filly without her parents’ consent.
“From practitioner to practitioner, and from moment to moment,” the mage continued, chuckling. “It is fortunate for all involved that only the highest level arcanists are capable of this enchantment.”
“And it is fortunate for your pockets and purses as well,” Blueblood remarked, from outside the circle of mists.
Sweetie could see the door behind him; despite the atmospherics, they were indoors, under the domed roof of one of Canterlot’s many mage towers.
“If there is nothing else, you may go,” the Prince said, and the three wise old mages bowed and took their leave without complaint. Blueblood’s expression turned notably less frosty once they were gone. “So: look at you! A big girl now.”
“Yeah,” Sweetie Belle exclaimed, spinning around playfully and giggling. “It feels good actually! At least this time it was planned for. Now... I think I have a date with a Prince and a bottle of something.” She took a step towards the door and stopped, one foreleg held in the air. “Uh... what do ponies drink in bars, anyway?”
Blueblood took her hoof and escorted her through the door. “Magical and wonderful things, my little Lady, but as important as the drink, is the company one drinks with. I have two ponies in mind...”
“They call this ‘bar hopping,’ by the way; a most tawdry and plebeian exercise.”
“You can sit outside and drink alone if you want, Prince Blueblood.” Spitfire lead the group of four past a suited earth pony bouncer, a spring in her step from having been freed of her more tedious Gala obligations. Soarin clasped the apparently friendly and sympathetic noblepony on the back, all but forcing him to follow the Wonderbolts’ lead. In the time it took a pegasus to deliver a pizza, it seemed, the pair of fliers had gone from respectful and even a little deferential to friendly and overly familiar.
“Come on,” Soarin coaxed, and glanced back at Blueblood’s supposed ‘date.’ “And you too, um... what was the name again?”
“Sweetie,” Sweetie Belle answered, still a little bit buzzed from the wine she’d had back at the Gala. “Call me Sweetie.” She looked around the bar as she followed the two pegasi and Blueblood. It was nicer than she expected.
‘In fact,’ Sweetie mused, ‘the way Rarity’s books described them, I was expecting splotches of unidentifiable liquids on the floor and more than one pony out-cold on the bar. But...’
She looked at the crystal tables and the velvet-cushioned seats; she watched the servers, dressed in black and white suits glide around the tables, balancing trays with cocktails of all designs and sizes and colors. Behind the bar, rows and rows of bottles decorated the wall, highlighted by neon-blue light. Not one of the bottles was short a golden or silver decoration on it, plainly marking the fineness of their quality.
‘This is... pretty nice!’
“Shall we start with a riesling or a fine white...?” Blueblood offered, as the four cut a swath through the ponies in their path. Sweetie mostly followed, but Blueblood, Spitfire and Soarin were clearly in their element, and exuded an easy confidence.
“We should break open a port!” Soarin grinned, laughing and wide eyed at the selection behind the blue-lit bar. “A little fortified wine to get things going!”
“Isn’t it a bit early? Lady Belle here isn’t...”
“I’m fine,” Sweetie interrupted, quickly, to Blueblood’s sigh. “Maybe I should drink one of those...” She pointed with her hoof at a chocolate martini garnished with a tiny white chocolate rose. “They look good!”
Spitfire merely smiled and shook her head in amusement.
“Ha ha! Alright!” Soarin trotted over, and as they sat down on pillows before a smooth table, a mare presented them with four tulip-shaped crystal glasses. The four thin-stemmed glasses twinkled invitingly, the glass so thin it seemed bound to shatter at slightest provocation. The Wonderbolt returned a moment later with a prim-looking unicorn from the bar, carrying a curved decanter in the shape of a swan.
“Your Grace,” the server whispered respectfully, and poured for the four patrons. Spitfire ribbed Blueblood mercilessly at the muttered obsequities.
“First drink to ‘His Grace’ here, and his beautiful marefriend!” Soarin chimed in, laughing with Spitfire.
Blueblood inhaled from the glass, gingerly picking it up with hooves rather than magic. He then took a slow drink, nodding in contentment at the flavor. After so much presentation, Sweetie was eager to see what it was like herself. To be that good, it had to be like liquid candy or something!
Following Blueblood’s example, she carefully picked it up with her hooves and took a deep breath after a small swirl. ‘Hmm. It doesn’t smell too bad. But I don’t really recognize anything in it,’ she thought, taking another sniff before shrugging and downing the contents of the wineglass in one big gulp.
She put down the glass - almost a bit too hard - on the table and scrunched up her face, taking in the sweetness of the wine along with a strong aftertaste that made her lick her lips and force her tongue to the top of her mouth to scrub some of it off. She opened her eyes and forced a smile.
“It’s- good.” She coughed and blushed, embarrassed. “I’d like another one.”
“Another one! To the Wonderbolts!” Soarin toasted, and Spitfire added, “To our Captain and to good company.”
The two drank, though not an entire glass as she had.
“Good stuff!” Soarin said, taking a smaller sip. “Back in the air guard, we drank fortified wine after every patrol. Not good stuff like this, though. Real backcloud swill. Who knows what they put in it?”
“Soarin,” Spitfire hissed, coughing into her hoof. “You’ll have to excuse him, Lady Belle.”
“A pony of gentle birth, this one,” Blueblood noted, somehow holding back a laugh.
“You’ll excuse my asking, but,” Spitfire asked anyway, “what exactly are you Lady of, my Lady?”
“I’m uh... the L-Lady of M-maripony.” Sweetie stammered, vaguely remembering the word from one or two worlds before.
“Maripony?” Spitfire repeated. “Never heard of it. Have you, Soarin’?”
When the other Wonderbolt shook his head, Sweetie smiled nervously. “It’s... far.”
“She is my fair Maripony Maid,” Blueblood remarked, finally giving a little chuckle. “Well, then, we have drink and I’m sure there will be snacks-”
“There will be snacks,” Soarin vowed.
“Your Grace, my Lady, what did you think of our show?” Spitfire asked the two nobleponies. Well... one noblepony and one secretly up-aged filly from Ponyville. “I was hoping we’d fit in a Cloud Carver, but the brass went for a Rolling Thunder instead.”
“Oh, I thought it was amazing!” Sweetie Belle spoke up quickly. “I bet Rainbow Dash loved it! And I know Scootaloo will be trying to do any of those to impress her!” Sweetie bit her lower lip, then looked at Blueblood. “Uh, Blueblood, can I try one of those chocolate thingies?”
“The rum and chocolate or... oh, those?” He caught on to where she was pointing. “That’s vodka, you know?”
“Sounds fun! And it looks delicious!” Sweetie grinned. “Come on, pleeeease?”
“How could I resist, my Lady?” Blueblood asked, feigning much more chivalry than she had seen from him before. “This is your night; all that you wish, I shall see done. All that you want, I shall grant.”
The drink came in a ribbed conical glass tied with a blue ribbon. The mixture inside was dark chocolate and darker liqueur, broken by swirls of crème and submerged shoals of shaved ice. Miniature white marshmallows cut in the shape of stars - five and six and seven and eight pointed - stood out against bits of crumbled brown chocolate. The serving mare from before came, presented it to Sweetie, and politely asked her to ‘enjoy.’
And she did indeed.
But she wanted more.
The next drink came in a tall decorative glass with decaled images of prancing ponies and palm trees. It was layered, from bottom to rim, with ice and sugar at the depths to a darker shade of color and a deeper, more sour flavor near the top. Slices of lime swam, green against the sand-colored portrait on the glass, and Sweetie finished it with a color-changing straw that would alternate colors as she drank.
After that, Soarin suggested a drink served in large, hollow egg shells. How anypony managed to mix a drink inside an emptied-out egg, Sweetie couldn’t imagine. They had to be careful cracking it open and holding it overhead, a sweet and sharp liquid pouring out into their waiting mouths. It was green and bright like a dragon’s fire and her head swam and turned light.
She hardly noticed the next drink. It was served in another carved crystal glass, made in the shape of a seapony. The Wonderbolts went first, lifting the glasses up with their hooves and kissing the crystal seapony on the lips to down crimson and orange sunrise within. Sweetie almost slipped lifting hers, but Blueblood caught it before any could spill. It wasn’t sweet like the other drinks, but warm and smooth like a lukewarm milkshake mixed with something sour.
Soarin’s promised snacks came then, a reprieve from the drink, and their serving mare brought a platter of rich fruit slices, speckled breads and candied jellies in every color imaginable. They also brought artisan breads, still warm, some with poppy seeds, others with nuts, and still others with cranberries and other sweet things Sweetie Belle couldn’t even begin to place. Blueblood, Soarin, and Spitfire dipped the breads in dishes of olive oil, one mixture so spicy Sweetie coughed in surprise.
“Marabian hot pepper oil,” Blueblood warned her. “Careful.”
Then, more drinks assaulted the table’s bottomless appetite and equally bottomless purse. The first was another tall glass, slightly curved inwards at the middle with a rounded bottom, thick with ice cubes and freezing cold. It was a shifting yellow-gold in color, and Sweetie swore it was colder on her tongue than the ice cube she bit into, crunching between her teeth once it was finished.
Finally, a drink came in a lacquer deep-bottomed bowl, cut and colored to resemble a coconut. It was as much a meal as a drink, overflowing with slices of pear, lemon, and cut apples, drenched, dripping, and lathered in a white, alcohol-rich foam. Beneath the bonanza of fruit delights, pink liqueur and submerged apple pulp and rose-red flower petals shifted and waited for their turn to taste. The four ponies drank with spoons and straws.
Sweetie Belle giggled. And then giggled again.
“The Everfree is not so... scaaaary...” She made a ghostly motion with her hooves. “Suure, it has, y’know, ma-manticores and those things that turn you to stone if you look at them in the eye and plants that can turn you into other stuff, but, y’now, it’s an awesome place for adventures! And...” She leaned conspiratorially towards the Wonderbolts. “Did you know... the old Princesses’ castle is in the middle of it?” Her eyes were wide. “It’s... amazing, like, there’s this huge, huge tainted - um, painted - window with the sun and the moon and stars and the symbols of Harmony all over it... and the cracked throne room of Nightmare Moon, where she battled with Twilight Sparkle until the Elements of Harmony defeated her and returned Princess Luna to normal!”
Soarin’ took a drink of his... whatever it was - he had lost interest and had begun to simply point randomly at tables that had drinks on them for the waitress to figure out - and nodded. “Sort of like Canterlot Castle, right?”
“Riiiight!” Sweetie nodded happily. “But all dark and stuff!” She waved at the waitress. “Can I have one of those thingies you’re taking to that table? It looks fruity!”
“Maaaybe it’s time to jump to another bar, don’t you think, Blueblood?” Spitfire asked, slowly shaking her head. “The night is still young and we should stretch our legs!”
“She’s right!” Sweetie gasped. “It’s not bar-hopping if we don’t hop! Come on, Blue... let’s hop! Hop! Hop! Hop!”
“It is truly a sad state of affairs when I can be considered the least impaired pony at a table,” Blueblood lamented. Somehow, he was villainously sober. “Very well.” He raised a hoof to gesture their serving mare back. “Check!”
Sweetie giggled as she swayed and bumped against Blueblood’s side. He was so big, like a big, white, mobile wall. It was harder not to bump into him sometimes. A part of her wondered if this was anything like how Apple Bloom felt, having a big brother around.
‘Too short, too tall, too clean, too smelly; strangely obsessed with tubs of jelly...!’ She giggled again as the silly rhyme from her Hearts and Hooves day song came and went through her mind. ‘If Blueblood had been there, would he have been too stuffy? Or too silly? Or too mean? What rhymes with mean? Lean? Clean? Jelly bean?’
She bumped into him again, her head swimming a bit. Those drinks had been so tasty!
“Oh, sorry Blue!” she not-apologized. “We should have done this sooner!”
“Sooner?” he asked, a bit cross, but caught her before she swayed into him again. He glanced up at the moon, Luna’s full moon, and sighed. “No matter. We’re almost there, now, we-”
Sweetie suddenly stopped and blinked, tilting her head as her hoof started tapping the cobblestones rhythmically. “Heey... guys, do you hear that? Is that music?”
“That’s not just music,” Soarin bumped in between the two, pumping his hoof. “That’s a buckin’ beat!”
“A beat,” Sweetie repeated, starting to follow it with her head. “I like it! It sounds familiar!”
“Where is...?” Soarin pointed down the street, to a line of ponies waiting beneath a neon sign. “There it is!”
Sweetie Belle turned to look at where Soarin’ was pointing. The building itself integrated seamlessly with the others around it; it looked clean on the outside, with white-tinted glass windows that flashed with the colored lights from within. A unicorn outside managed a shimmering barrier in lieu of a proper door, masking the activities inside from those waiting outside. He seemed to arbitrarily pick and choose from the crowd gathered and milling under a pillared awning, eschewing the order and formality of a line entirely.
"'After Hours,' the sign read, the 'beat' definitely coming from inside. Sweetie could feel it, tugging at her and calling her forth into its sonorous depths. If she remembered right, it was even where... where...
"Let's go there!" She declared.
“A little dancing could be just the thing,” Spitfire agreed and nudged Soarin, drawing the pegasus away from a pair of unicorn twins waving his way.
“If one fine lady wishes to visit a venue, then a wise stallion does not argue. If two, then only a fool would disagree.” As they approached, though, Blueblood shrank back a bit as some of the ponies amidst the crowd clearly noticed him. Quite a few took to muttering amongst themselves, but he pressed the group on. A quick look was all it took for the bouncer to recognize Equestria’s Prince and they were quickly ushered inside, though Blueblood had to keep anypony from lingering. At least one camera flashed before they slipped inside.
“I should’ve brought a few more guards to clear the roads,” Sweetie heard him mutter, but then he smiled. “This is not really my element. Soarin? Maybe...”
“This way,” the Wonderbolt stallion declared, leading them along the outer edge of a hardwood dance floor to a table set under a mural of a coiled green dragon. The table next to it bore a four headed hydra, and the one next to that, a glaring cockatrice.
Sweetie shuddered. “I hate those things.” She looked around, noticing that the drinks were completely different from the previous bar. “Hey... they don’t have chocolate martinis here? What do they drink then?”
“Beer!” a passing waitress answered, as she stopped next to their table. “Or any hard liquor. But if we’ve got the stuff for it, we can give your favorite cocktail a go. So, what can I get for you?”
“Gin and tonic!” Soarin ordered, and pointed over at Spitfire. “And a Sex on the Beach for my wingmate here!”
“A pomace brandy, if you have it,” Blueblood ordered for Sweetie Belle, and then for himself, “And a sweet vermouth.”
“What’s beer taste like?” Sweetie asked the waitress, who blinked.
“W-well, uh, there are many types of beer... stout, lager, red ale, IPA, white ale... the list goes on, sweetheart - I mean, sorry, my Lady - what type of flavor do you like? Bitter?”
Sweetie shook her head.
“Hm... you were saying chocolate-something earlier, weren’t you?” the waitress asked. “Well, I have a porter that has a nice chocolaty flavor to it. Would you like to try that?”
Sweetie Belle smiled. “Sure! Bring me one of those! And some brandy, like Bluey ordered!”
“Bluey,” the waitress mouthed to herself, amused, and ducked way.
Blueblood seemed to notice, and for the first time that night, he asked his supposed ‘date,’ “So I’m Bluey now, am I?”
“Nope!” Sweetie said, giggling as she poked his foreleg. “You’ve always been Bluey! I just decided to call you that. Because.”
“Because.” It was hard to tell whether it was a question or statement or a little of both.
The music died down to the clapping of several ponies on the dance floor. Another pony, a unicorn with a soft blue coat and slick spiked black mane, stepped onto stage, one hoof raised to adjust his tinted sunglasses. His hoof slipped down to the white tie around his neck and the stylish black shirt that contrasted with it. “Alright, colts and fillies! Let’s put those hooves up for DJ Vapid Alarm! Yeah!”
The DJ waved at the cheering ponies as he made his way off-stage.
“AAAAAAAAAAnd now! The one! The only! The DJ that laid down Diamond Dog DJ Grabbed and bested DJ Phantom in musical combat! Hailing from the town of Ponyville, right on the edge of the deadly Everfree Forest and fearing no beast, DJ or institution known to ponydooooom! Here's the DJ of DJ's! DJ PON3 HERSELF! Vinyyyyyyl SCRATCH!"
The already thunderous cheers from the crowd managed to somehow increase as a white-coated unicorn with a spiky, two-tone, neon-blue mane, large reflective violet sunglasses and a simple black note for a cutie mark jumped on stage, her horn shimmering with magic as several LPs circled around her. “Let’s get it on!” she shouted. Immediately two of the hovering LPs slammed down onto her console in a shower of blue sparks, and with the flick of a switch and her hooves on the levels and mixers, she started her gig.
“Bluey! Bluey!” Sweetie gasped. “It’s Vinyl Scratch!”
“Yeah,” Soarin agreed, nodding. “That’s what the MC said!”
“No, you don’t get it!” Sweetie replied, her horn lighting up with magical energy. A small hole in space and time opened and a gem-studded notebook floated out. Sweetie quickly flipped through the pages and found what she was looking for.
Spitfire stared at the empty space the book had materialized from. “Did she just-”
“Eh, unicorns.” Soarin shrugged.
“You said you knew this mare?” Blueblood asked, gesturing over at the stage.
“Yes,” Sweetie said, showing Blueblood a picture she had taken from within the pages of her notebook. It showed a slightly different Sweetie Belle in a graduation gown from the Canterlot School of Music, standing next to Rarity, who didn’t seem to have aged a day. A little behind them, and smiling at the camera, were two other mares, both familiar to him. One was undoubtedly an older version of the same Vinyl Scratch on the stage, down to the sunglasses, and the other was the mare that played the cello at the Gala, also looking older. “See? Octavia was my mentor, and I think she was either dating Vinyl or her best friend, I never really found out. Anyway, I got a free lesson from her. It was pretty fun! She’s staying with ‘Tavi in Canterlot tonight.”
“Huh,” Soarin raised an eyebrow. "She looks..."- even inebriated, he tried to be diplomatic - "...old...er..." for the most part anyways.
“Well, that picture was taken in the future!” Sweetie replied.
“Here’re your drinks!” The waitress said, bobbing her head to the beat as she proceeded to serve the drinks around. “Hope you enjoy! I’ll be around, so call me whenever you’re ready for the next round!”
Spitfire took a really long sip from the straw in her drink, downing about half the glass before she stopped, shook her head with a grimace and looked at Sweetie. “Wanna run that by me again?”
Sweetie slammed the empty pint on the table, next to another two and an empty glass of brandy. “Y-eeees! An’ then I told her, I-I told Nigh-mare Mooon, and I says” - she raised a hoof and pointed at Spitfire - “‘Youuu cheated! Now-now we, all we... we all look like chickn’s!’”
Soarin and Spitfire started laughing, taking swigs from their own beers.
“Where’s she coming up with this stuff?” Soarin chortled, slamming a hoof down on the table. “A prank war with the Princess - with her Highness and - and...”
“Quite the fanciful imagination,” Blueblood agreed.
“You should so write a book about all this stuff,” Spitfire chimed in, leaning forward with her hooves pressed into her cheeks. “Some kind of crazy ‘autobiography’ thing.”
“HA!” Sweetie laughed. “I-I have, look!” She started rummaging in her notebook again. “Aha! Look, here, look... Soarin... Soarin, look, here... Soarin...”
Soarin finally put down his bottle and blinked stupidly at the scroll that was floating in front of his eyes. “Wu-wha—?”
“It’s my letter... it’s yeah, I passed! Woo! Stupid ink-egg! I beat you! Well, not really, Nightmare Moon sneezed and you broke, but I still passed!” Sweetie hooped as she grinned like an idiot. “See? It says right there, admitted into Nightmare Moon’s School for... for... something unicorns.”
Spitfire stared at the letter in silence before locking eyes with Blueblood for just a second. Then she waved the waitress over. “Another round.”
“Hey, Bluey,” Sweetie poked Blueblood’s shoulder. “A-are you listenin’ t’me?” She frowned and glared at him. “Y-you said I could do aaaaanything I wanted tonight, right? I think you said that. Aaaaanything. I think... you did. Say that, I mean.”
Blueblood nodded slowly, waiting to see where this was going.
“Well, I wanna talk to Vinyl Scratch,” Sweetie said. “I wanna see if she recognizes me now that I’m older.”
“I don’t know this mare, and yet I am to bring her here?” Blueblood leaned back a bit, smiling. “Well, don’t blame me if I seduce her by accident.”
“Oh?” Spitfire seemed particularly amused by this. “Pretty bold, saying something like that in front of your marefriend.”
“A Prince must always be bold, especially when it comes to the fairer sex,” Blueblood lectured, and Soarin nodded, sagely.
“Very true,” he murmured. “Mares like decisive guys... and aloof ones?”
“We’re called ‘jerks,’” Blueblood summarized. “Anyway. One DJ Pony-three, or whathaveyou, coming up.”
Invigorated by the chance to do something, maybe not productive, but... something, Blueblood tossed his blonde mane and cantered across the room. Soarin and Spitfire watched, curious, and Sweetie wondered what all the fuss was about. Wasn’t he just asking - or in the worst case - ordering her to come over and join them? Spitfire whispered something to her fellow Wonderbolt, and Soarin chuckled.
“What’s so funny?” Sweetie asked, having strained her ears to try and overhear.
“Prince Blueblood is a well-known casanova,” Spitfire explained with a somewhat sleepy grin. “Are you really okay with him going over there?”
“Casa-nova?” Sweetie asked, blinking. What’s a casanova? “Uh, sure, I knew that!” She chugged down more of her beer. “And it’s all good, he’ll bring her back; it’ll be fun!”
Soarin’s mouth opened as he stared at Sweetie for a moment, then he turned to look at Spitfire. “Y’know, Spits, you could learn something from—” He stopped when Spitfire pressed her hoof to his lips.
“Finish that sentence, Soarin, and you won’t fly for a month.”
Sweetie frowned. “Wait... what’s wrong with Bluey bringing her over?”
“N-nothing,” Soarin said, gulping down and keeping nervous eyes on Spitfire. “W-we don’t even know if he’ll manage. We have to wait.”
“Oh, okay,” Sweetie fought the feeling that she wasn’t getting half the conversation. “I-I guess we’ll see.”
No more than a minute later, Blueblood had returned, sat down, and the smug grin on his face spoke volumes. Nonetheless, one pony there had to hear it. Also, why was he looking so smug?
“Well?” Sweetie pressed.
“I believe she’ll stop by our table for a drink or two, though...” And here, the Prince heaved a sigh. “She seemed much more interested in my music-crazy marefriend than my own personal charms.”
Soarin’s eyes widened and a smile spread across his face. “Lucky you, Sweetie.”
“The luck isn’t all her’s,” Blueblood joked, leaning in to give a conspiratorial wink. “I may yet be able to watch.”
“You guys are both... such guys,” Spitfire groaned.
“Wait... so you want to watch me talk to Vinyl?” Sweetie asked, blinking. “Where else would you be?”
For a long moment, all three real adults just stared at her, not quite sure what to say.
“Ah, the innocence of youth,” Blueblood remarked.
“Wow, she really is a maid.”
Soon enough, the music slowed down to an impressive end of flashing lights and sounds that threatened to overwhelm Sweetie’s alcohol-impaired mind and seemed to put most ponies on the dance floor into a sort of trance until it all faded away.
“Vinyl Scratch!” the MC shouted and immediately the place exploded in applause.
The MC started announcing the next DJ for the night, but Sweetie’s eyes were glued to the mare who had just jumped off the stage and was making her way to their table, stopping only to nod and smile at several ponies who would briefly talk to her excitedly.
Vinyl made it all the way to their table and grinned at Sweetie Belle. “Hey there, I could feel those emerald eyes on me all the way on the stage! Do you mind if I feel them from a little closer?”
Soarin leaned all the way across the table, and Sweetie could just overhear him say to Blueblood, “I like where this is going.”
“Sure!” Sweetie Belle exclaimed, smiling and scooting over. “You can sit here! I really have been wanting to talk to you tonight!”
“Oh, really?” Vinyl grinned in a somewhat... unusual way. Maybe she was hungry? “How bad have you wanted it?”
“Really bad! You have no idea! Since the first time I saw you and read what you wrote, I’ve really been looking forward to it!”
Vinyl’s smile grew even more until it flashed a hint of her pearly-white teeth. “Hmmm... well, you can ask Prince Blueblood, and he’ll tell you, when I saw you across the room, I really wanted to meet you too.”
“Wow!” Sweetie’s eyes went wide. “That’s amazing! Who would’ve thought?! You just looked at me and knew, didn’t you? And, I just remembered I had some questions about ‘pumping it up.’”
Vinyl chuckled and leaned forward. “Well, why don’t you... whisper it to me? I’m all ears...”
“But I want Bluey to hear it too...” Sweetie said, frowning. “After all, I think he’s the only one that can help me. No offense.”
Vinyl Scratch paused, then turned to look at Blueblood. “I- I guess he can watch.”
Soarin stared at the three ponies and only had one thing to say: “Un-be-lievable.”
“I think I need another drink,” Spitfire muttered. “Who needs a drink? I need one!”
Vinyl looked at Sweetie. “Can she watch too?”
Spitfire was silent for a moment. “Two drinks! I need two! Waitress!”
“So...” Sitting close - a little closer than Sweetie would have expected - Vinyl gently laid a hoof on top of her own. “What do you want to talk about, hm?”
Vinyl lowered her head onto her crossed forelegs after pushing away her fifth empty whiskey glass. “Yes, the beat is important even when the lead is the singer, how do you think they keep the rhythm?” She groaned.
“Hey, Vinyl, are you okay?” Spitfire asked, trying not to laugh. Or smile too much.
“Okay? Okay?! All she wants to do is talk about music!” The famous DJ buried her face in her hooves. “This... this is horrible! It’s Octavia all over again!”
The group stumbled out of the bar, with the addition of one more mare. Vinyl Scratch looked up towards the castle and snorted, drawing the attention of all the others. “Seems like the snobs are still going at it.”
“Hey! My sister’s there,” Sweetie complained, nudging the DJ.
“Is she hot?” Vinyl asked.
“Well... I- I don’t... think so,” Sweetie said after a moment. “She’s pretty good at designing dresses, so she’s probably not too hot or cold.”
Vinyl looked like she wanted to say much more, but she settled for a bemused look of frustration. “You’re truly oblivious, aren’t you? Why do I have to find that so attractive? Why? Am I cursed? I’m cursed, aren’t I?”
“We should probably head back,” Soarin said, hiccuping a little. “The others are there and you know how they get, right, Spits?”
“Don’t call me ‘Spits’, but yeah, they do get a bit grumpy,” Spitfire acknowledged. “Especially...”
“The Vice-Captain,” Soarin finished, shuddering. “She’s gonna be on me for this.”
“And Captain Thunderhead will give me that look,” Spitfire groaned, dreading it. “Disappointed I didn’t play kissy-hoof with all the nobleponies.”
“I happen to be one of those nobleponies,” Blueblood reminded her, and gave the proud Wonderbolt a tentative touch on her shoulder. “I wouldn’t worry about it, but I’ll make sure your time is considered well spent in my company. I believe the good Captain may be grooming a replacement, you know.”
“Thank you, sir,” Spitfire muttered, recalling the Prince’s place in the oft-unspoken hierarchy of Equestria. “We both appreciate it.”
Blueblood nodded, and seeing everypony looking to him for what to do next, he groaned much as Spitfire had. He gave a little extra attention to their newest member. “Miss Scratch, would you like to see what sound systems we have at the Royal Palace? Or... our other amenities? I think most of us may be turning in.”
“Sure!” Vinyl Scratch grinned and threw a foreleg around Sweetie’s shoulders. “‘Tavi’s there, playing. I think she would love seeing me there, ‘mingling’ with the guests.”
“Good!” Blueblood remarked, but his outward cheer evaporated a little when he noticed Sweetie’s silence. “Just,” he warned the DJ, “mind the critters when we enter.”
It was the Grand Galloping Gala after midnight, and panicked animals from across the palatial gardens were helping themselves to expensive hors d'oeuvres at the buffet and playing house, or nest, with draperies and the hastily discarded clothes of fleeing guests. Half the Royal Guard had mysteriously vanished along with the Princess, and the other half was divided between guarding their posts, even as chaos raged in the courtyards, and trying to corral the animals without harming them.
Above the din and confusion, a select few found refuge in the high galleries and balconies that formed a half circle around the upper gardens and the menageries. Spitfire and Soarin had briefly returned to their Wonderbolts only to return and promptly crash into a pile, asleep. Vinyl had stepped into the ballroom to make sure Octavia was okay after the stampede, leaving only Blueblood and a still inebriated Sweetie Belle to oversee the total collapse of the most awaited event of the year.
Sweetie Belle snorted in a most unladylike manner.
“Rarity told me about this,” she said with a titter, “but she never said it was so chaotic.”
She watched as columns fell and carefully groomed guests stared in abject, muted horror at their ruined dresses and suits. Her mirth slowly died as she stared at everypony in something approaching disgust.
“Look at them. Thinking and acting as if life begins and ends with a social event. Never aware of how bad things can really get. Of how close they were to being trapped in an eternal night, or that some poor ponies could be cursed to live forever and watch everyone they love die. Or that there could be a war of such scale that it would turn the world into nothing m-more than a wasteland where you can’t even find water that doesn’t kill you, and sometimes when you die it’s not enough.”
She rested her forehooves on the edge of the balcony and shouted as hard as she could to the panicked masses below her.
“You’re hypocrites! All of you!” Tears started forming in her eyes. “Y-you losers! Ignorant foals!” Slowly she slid down, turning around until her back was pressed against the wall. “All you have to worry about is... y-your stupid dresses! Or if you have cake in your mane! You didn’t kill anypony! You’re not—” She sobbed, before shaking her head and glaring at the floor. “...you’re not trapped,” she muttered angrily.
Sweetie pulled her notebook out of its pocket-dimension and slowly traced the cover with her hoof, pausing on each gem.
“I’m never getting out of this, am I?” she asked, looking up at Blueblood. He had been silent all this time, looking down at the panicked crowds without a word. “Even if we find that fragment... I’m just going to end up in another world trying to find another. And then another. I’ll never be free. I’ll just keep collecting memories in my notebook, but I’ll never grow up and I’ll never see my sister again.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “I was actually starting to enjoy my classes with Twilight, you know? She was always about reading one book or another, but... it started dull and then... I guess I grew into liking the practice and talking to her and wondering about what I could do in the future.”
Sweetie looked away, ashamed.
“B-but then I had to nose around where it was dangerous and I-I killed my friends! I- I don’t think Spike made it, to be honest. I- I never told this to anypony but—” She stopped, and buried her face in her hooves. Tears stung her cheeks. “I saw the room where he went into being torn apart!” she confessed. “It was just for a second, while Twilight exploded into pieces, I saw the library being torn to shreds around us. And... even if Twilight is alive in the fragments, I’ve never seen one sign of Spike.” She sighed, rubbing her eyes to try and dry them. “I should just give up.” Sweetie looked up at the sky. “What if the next world is worse than the last? What if I get killed?”
Blueblood hesitated a second, but put a leg around her comfortingly, adding a friendly little shake. “Some ponies call it fate or destiny, but it really isn’t fair, is it? You’re too young to have gone through - to be going through - all this. I wouldn’t blame you if you stopped right here, though I also sort of envy your ability to just get away. Even dying. I kind of envy that. But in your place, I think I’d be afraid, too, for myself and for those I’d left behind.” He let out a long breath, his eyes settling on the moon. “Auntie Luna... you...” he began, but shook his head. “Never mind that.”
He turned to her, a wan smile on his face.
“You know you can stay here as long as you like, Sweetie Belle. Personally, I really am glad you came to this world. Somepony is here with me; I have a friend who remembers me, and as long as you’re here, I swear I will do what I can to make the best of things for you. And I know you’ll want to move on eventually, and I’ll help with that, too. Even though we’re repeating the same day, we aren’t the ponies we used to be. It’s okay to cry, to worry, to be afraid, but we can’t go back, so all that left is to go forward. And never just give up.”
“But go forward how?” Sweetie asked. “I’ve been all over Ponyville crusading... there’s no sign of the fragment. Usually I get a feeling, but here there’s nothing. Like it isn’t even here!” She groaned, emotionally spent. “Even with so many repeating days... without a clue, what can I do?” Sweetie slowly and unsteadily stood up. “Blueblood... what if I stay here like this and I grow up in my head, but my body is always a filly?”
“If that’s the case,” he decided, his smile turning into a smirk. “I’ll just learn to do the age spell myself, and zap you every morning. How’s that? I can even turn you into an old granny after a couple thousand loops.”
Sweetie couldn’t help herself and snorted. “I’m sure that would become boring after awhile.” However, her smile remained.
“You can learn the spell yourself, too, eventually,” Blueblood added.
But Sweetie barely paid attention to him, her gaze drawn towards the castle gardens, and in particular to a large open patch of pavillion near the center. “Blueblood... what’s over there?” She pointed with her hoof in the direction she was looking.
“The garden maze?”
From above, Sweetie could see where Discord and other statues decorated the entrance to the secluded section of the gardens. Whether it was the haze of drink clouding her eyes as much as her thoughts, she could’ve sworn there were patterns in it. It also looked much larger than she had imagined, stretching wide enough to swallow most of Ponyville.
Sweetie frowned and shook her head. “It’s... interesting. Maybe we can look at it one day?” She yawned. “But... I think I need to sleep.” She yawned again and blinked wearily. “Y’promise to help... right?” she asked sleepily, “‘cause I dunno if I can do it alone.”
“Your grammar is slipping, but yes, I assure you that I am at your disposal,” Blueblood promised, before adding, “Tonight and tomorrow and as long as you are here. Though... I think I should warn you... now that it occurs to me.” He lifted a hoof to hide his smile, his eyes rolling. “When your age spell does begin to wear off, with all the alcohol in your system...”
“...something like that may happen.”
Fortunately for both of them she had managed to throw up over the edge of the balcony. Unfortunately for the ponies below them, she had managed to throw up over the edge of the balcony. Fate truly was a cruel mistress.
“Ugh...” Sweetie groaned after heaving out another load. “I need... I...” the world swirled around her and suddenly she was smiling at Blueblood’s hooves. “I’m alright... I-I’m okay... I’ll just... sleep here... it’s comfy.”
“Passing out on the floor is undignified for a noble Lady,” Blueblood stated, and his horn shimmered, lifting the once again diminutive Sweetie bodily into the air. “Let’s get you to bed. Auntie Celestia’s bed, preferably. Hahaha!”
“I’m sorely tempted. But I have ten empty bedrooms in this wing of the Palace. I’ll just randomly toss you in one of them.” He trotted, quite happily, past a sleeping Soarin and Spitfire, sprawled out indecently on the ground in a tangle of snoring wings and hooves. “I do hope you enjoyed your first night as an adult filly?”
Sweetie threw up again, then, slowly cleaned her mouth with the back of her hoof. “Best. Night. Ever,” she groaned.
“Wait... I’m here again!?” Sweetie Belle stared, open-mouthed, at the statue in front of her of the rearing, laureled pegasus holding aloft a flag. “But—” she opened and closed her mouth silently a few times. “Victory?! How in Tartarus am I here again? What is this, like... the thirteenth time!? What happened to ‘always take a left at every intersection?!’”
She started pacing in front of the statue of the upraised mare, shooting it a dirty look.
“Dumb rock!” she bellowed, stopping and stomping her hooves on the ground as hard as she could. “How am I getting out of here? Am I just going to have to wait it out? How can this maze be so stupidly large?! There must be a trick to it!”
She took a deep breath and pointed an accusing hoof at the statue. “Just you wait! I’ll figure it out! Even if it takes me a month! And then I’ll come back here and laugh at you! You’ll be sorry!” she swore bitterly at the inspiring statue. “I’ll come back and I’ll— I’ll leave beer cans all around you! How’s that, huh? I’ll cast a spell to bring all the pigeons to nest just on you! I’ll-I’ll tell Scootaloo that you’re the best place for her to earn a graffiti-painter cutie mark!” She paused. “No, even better! I’ll make sure that Discord curls up around you before he’s turned to stone! That’ll fix you for a thousand years of horror!” After a few minutes of fuming, she sighed and walked around the statue. “You wouldn’t have a map attached to you, would you? Probably not. That would be too conv—”
Sweetie Belle paused, mid-statement, having caught sight of something stuck to the back of the statue. It was an arrow... pointing up. She’d have been tempted to ignore it as random graffiti, except somepony had written, directly under it:
“Sweetie Belle, the map is right up there,” she read, and craned her neck to look upwards. She still didn’t see it, not at first. Only after a second or two of searching did she finally see the edge of something stuck in the top of the statue’s upraised and oversized scroll. It looked like a bundle of paper, and it was well out of reach of any flightless pony. A pegasus could probably have just flown up and grabbed it, but for a unicorn...? Who would put something in such an annoying place?
Oh, him. Right.
How did he know I was going to get lost and end up here? Sweetie mused as her magic enveloped the scroll and tugged at it, eventually bring it down to eye-level. With an annoyed twitch of her eye, it opened up, revealing a map of the whole maze.
“Oh, come on!” Sweetie shouted at the map. “And you were here the whole time!?” She almost threw the map into the maze in anger, but managed to hold on to it. “Fine. Where am I?”
She quickly found her current location and, after a few minutes of plotting her new route, she set off. The twists and turns of the maze were insidious indeed. It’s no wonder I couldn’t find my way, some of these entrances look like a wall of shrubbery is blocking them! she thought to herself as she turned around a corner she had never noticed before.
The new walkway led to the second level of a pavilion concourse, dotted by lowered flagposts that draped over the bushes and flowers below. Looking down, she recalled walking along the manicured grass there, never expecting there to be a way up or around. There was no crossing, though, furthering the illusion that she was on top of one of the hedgerow dividers rather than on a raised section. Picking up her pace, she also took notice of a small raised pillar as she passed it. It tapered to a pointed tip at the top, and unicorn pictographs similar to the ones she had learned from Twilight circled it from top to bottom. She knew the meaning of some of them, but they seemed to just be randomly thrown together: the dog, the horse, the star, the blade, the book, the half-book - it made no sense.
Checking the map again, she tried to get her bearings. She was sandwiched between two concentric hexagons within the maze, both of them surrounding small pavilions, on the map, “C” and “D.” A left came up, and she took it uphill. That vantage point didn’t provide much in the way of help, either. From above and at the angle she found herself at, the walls just seemed to blur together into a shifting sea of green, broken only occasionally by upshooting pageantry and fluttering pennants. A seemingly randomly placed entablature was decorated with marble carvings of ponies with lances and flags. Thick green vines had long since climbed up and claimed the marble pillars.
Around a bend and down a straightaway and she came to a quick turn, like a V, where another of the strange pillars decorated with icons stood, mute and alone and seemingly out of place. The tip of this one was reflective, though, and Sweetie saw a glint of bronze or maybe gold at the very top. Two more lefts and a right and another right and she could see the center of the maze up ahead, past two long reflecting pools. Mermares emerged from the water at both ends of both pools, as if frozen in mid-jump.
Sweetie slowly trotted around the center pillar, admiring it and the sense of calm it created. She slowly approached it to take a closer look, only then noticing that it had names written on it. She frowned. The names were all the same! She lifted her hoof to touch the obelisk but hesitated halfway when she felt... something.
“What...” Sweetie Belle reached again to touch it and again she felt the sensation. It was a pull of some sort, tugging at her soul, as if... just as if something was trying to get in touch with her. Gently laying her hoof on the obelisk, Sweetie closed her eyes and opened her senses to the magic around her.
The energies of the maze hummed around her, but any place with magic would do that... no, what she felt had been different or she wouldn’t have noticed it. Sweetie focused her senses on the obelisk and...
A flash of purple. A fragment, floating... captured in a circle of runes. Twilight’s face, her eyes looking straight into Sweetie’s. Dark-red sky. An entrance. An obelisk, just like the one in the maze, but inverted, upside down.
“Ah!” Sweetie cried, jumping back and staring at the obelisk in horrified fascination. “I-I found it!” she shouted, feeling relief flow through her body. “I found it! But—” She looked around. “Where is it?”
Sweetie walked slowly all around the area. She tried touching the other columns, or even dipping her hoof into the pool’s waters, but to no avail. However, when she returned to the central obelisk and touched it, she felt the same pull. It was familiar, but she didn’t know what to make of it.
“Dumb rock,” Sweetie muttered, giving it a dirty look.
“...and then, when I touched it again, I had this really weird feeling!” Sweetie said, gesturing with her hooves. “It felt like I should know what to do! But I don’t know! Do you have any ideas?”
Blueblood then muttered something both obscure and poignant.
“Nope,” he said, shrugging.
Sweetie pouted for a moment, but then, as she thought about it her eyes widened. Of course it felt familiar! “It’s the fragment!” she exclaimed, drawing a curious look from Blueblood.
“What I felt was the fragment!” Sweetie elaborated. “But... how did it end up in the center of your maze?”
“It isn’t my maze,” he corrected her, tapping his hoof against the wooden table. Tea was his drink this morning, and scones his meal. Sweetie preferred pancakes. “You felt some sort of sympathetic reaction at the center? There’s nothing there except the Blueblood monument, and while Twilight may be distantly related to me, she isn’t a Blueblood. Her name isn’t on that rock.”
“But...” Sweetie trailed off, frowning. “I really don’t know what else could’ve bee- waaaiiit. Did you say you’re related to Twilight?” She looked at Blueblood as if he had grown another head. “But... she’s nice!”
“I know! It really is strange!” Blueblood chuckled. “It isn’t a close relation. We share... great, great, I think another great is in there... grandparents. You’ll find I’m actually related to hundreds of ponies.” He winked, conspiratorially. “Maybe even you!”
Sweetie pondered his words for a moment. “I guess... I can see that. Does she know? Because in my world she never said anything to Rarity.”
“Hmm.” Blueblood thought, loudly, for a moment, in the kind of exaggerated way that implied he was about to follow up with a question to demonstrate a point. “Sweetie, do you know who your great, great, great grandmother was?”
Sweetie nodded. “Yeah! She was a zebra! And she rhymed aaaalll the time. And I heard she married a manticore, but I can’t be sure.”
“Sarcastic little filly,” the Prince observed, but didn’t seem put off. “Twilight’s line diverged from mine about two hundred years ago, before this quaint little town was even founded. They also didn’t part from my ancestors on good terms. If Twilight does know of the connection - and she should, being a good, noble mare - it would only be more reason to dislike me.”
Sweetie patted Blueblood’s hoof with her own. “Aw, you’re not that bad...”
“Good? Bad? Does it even matter when you look like this?” he asked, striking a brief pose, long blonde mane sparkling and flowing with a little glamour. He grinned and his teeth actually sparkled.
Sweetie observed the display with half-lidded eyes. “But that still doesn’t explain why I can feel the fragment in the center of the maze. Could it be that the fragment was drawn to one of your mutual ancestors?”
“There is that possibility, but then I would expect her to have gone to the Blueblood family crypts,” he mused, quickly dispelling the minor beauty-enhancing cantrip. “Every one of the line rests there, all the way back to Platinum herself. The maze and that monument... her being there is strange. Too strange.”
“Well... is there any way to check? Do you have a list of things your ancestors did in all your noble-house-archives?” Sweetie asked.
“I do,” he replied, “but I’ve long since had to commit most of that to memory anyway. What with how ours is Equestria’s most noble, most esteemed, oldest and grandest of all families, and such and such. What could draw her to that blasted maze? There was...”
“Well, the maze itself was designed by a Blueblood... a Princess Blue Belle actually, the twenty third of our shared name, though not one of my grandmothers,” the Prince admitted, growing a little awkward. “As I recall, her title was actually taken from her posthumously due to... insanity.”
“Insanity.” Sweetie blinked. “What type of insanity are we talking about here? Because I recently met an insane ghoul and it was not nice.”
“A ghoul?” he asked, but before she could explain, he waved a hoof. “Later. Tell me later. Blueblood the Twenty Third... she was a mathematician, one of the family prodigies, but after a while, her eccentricities alienated her supporters in court. She wasn’t a violent loon, I don’t think, but from what I recall, she refused to bathe except in freezing cold water, she was obsessed with prime numbers - hated them with a passion - and worst of all, she refused to conceive an heir. She may also have lit a few fires. Frostfires, I believe. In fact, I think she developed that spell! Very difficult to put out, those.”
He paused as if weighing something.
“She,” he continued, hesitating a moment. “Now that I think of it more, I’m not sure where she’s buried. It should still be the branch crypts, but I’m not sure. She was hardly my favorite study. I guess I would need to check the records to be sure.”
“Do you think... she was buried with Twilight’s fragment in the maze?” Sweetie’s eyes were wide, excited by the prospect of a lead.
“It is the only link we have to...” Blueblood paused, his expression grave. “Sweetie Belle. Don’t turn around.”
“Why?” Sweetie asked, beginning to turn around despite herself. “What’s...?”
“HI!” Pinkie Pie said, and the filly blasted straight up into the air in surprise.
“Why, hello there, Miss Pie!”
“I have your delivery!”
The records in question were located in a great castle complex outside Canterlot known as Hocksford. Blueblood had explained on the chariot ride over that it was just one of many keeps owned by his family throughout Equestria. Hocksford was notable in that the great enceinte had been made over into a repository of knowledge. The castle and the battlements, of a design distinct from those in Canterlot proper, had been turned into the foundation for a seminary and university.
It was still all contained within the well-maintained walls, bearded with ivy and besieged by acres of immaculate gardens. Canterlot castles and palaces were known for their onion domes, but the towers at the bastions at the corner of the walls here were conical at the top and decorated with iron and statuary. The roofs were slanted, their simple construction disguised behind jagged parapets and pony-shaped gargoyles, watching from on high. Their proud horns were now roosts and perches for pigeons.
Taking a carriage from the outside lot, where the had left behind their chariot, the pegasi having unhitched themselves and now cantering alongside them, Sweetie Belle watched in fascination as they passed under the old-style gatehouse and into the main courtyard. There were students reading and even attending class beneath the afternoon sun. She could see what Blueblood had meant when he'd said that most of the castle had been turned over to study and recordkeeping. She also noticed a few guards donning red and gold armor, similar but distinct from that worn by the royal guard of Canterlot.
“What are they studying?” Sweetie asked, as the carriage passed by a lecturer and a trio of serious-looking students. The unicorn professor had brought out a chalkboard, and filled it with what looked like a complex web of joined points in familiar shapes.
“Hmm? Who?” Blueblood asked, and glanced up from his own book to see. “Oh, that bunch? Those ponies look like part of the seminary. I believe they’re studying the confluence of celestial bodies,” he explained, “Natural philosophy, etiology, cosmology and theology make up most of the curriculum here. In Canterlot, the main focus is the schools of magic. Hocksford places more value on the contemplative study of the natural world as it used to be, before ponies arrived and altered it.”
Sweetie looked at the group. “I don’t think we even have something like this in my original world,” she said. “Princess Celestia pretty much has all the schools teach a little bit about everything.”
“You don’t have specialized institutes of higher learning?” Blueblood asked, a little curious now at how much their worlds diverged. “Where did you plan to go after your schooling in Ponyville?”
She sighed. “If it weren’t for Twilight, I probably would have ended up just simply living in Ponyville without any real education in magic. I might have been able to apply to better schools in Canterlot or Manehattan, but my chances would have been... slim.”
Blueblood considered this a moment. “So much depends on who you are fortunate enough to know, rather than simply what you can do,” he replied, ruefully shaking his head. “In this world, most unicorns are apprenticed right after getting their cutie marks. Noble colts like myself serve as squires for a time, usually in the royal guard serving under a knight, and noblemares pursue arcane degrees, also under a mentor. One of the areas I have been remiss in, when it comes to Canterlot and my Duchy, is seeing to scholarships. If I do get out of these loops, I’ll begin to remedy that.”
“Well, whoever you give a scholarship to, they’ll be lucky,” Sweetie said, thinking back. “In one world, I was able to get one and grew up to be a famous singer.” She smiled briefly, before her face was marred by a frown. “Until I grew old and died of old age and had to be buried by my sister who would spend the next couple of hundred years feeling guilty.”
“The world with the immortal elements,” he said, recalling a mention of it before, loops ago. Sweetie nodded her head in confirmation and followed Blueblood, wondering where exactly he was leading her.
Their goal was the main keep of the castle, opposite a building Blueblood identified as the chapel. The keep was a tall, rectangular building sandwiched between four towers, a pair of turrets fitted into the spaces between each cylindrical monolith. There was creeping ivy here, too, climbing up the sides of the walls and up to a height of what had to be hundreds of her little hooves. Like the walls surrounding Hocksford, they were partly plastered over in white, but much of the rest was bare, dark gray stone. Compared to the ostentatious displays of Canterlot, it was a little depressing looking.
“How old is this place?” she asked, as a guard opened the door to the keep.
“Platinum herself had the foundation stones laid,” Blueblood replied, a hint of pride in his voice and his smile. “Hocksford is as old as Equestria; older, actually! It was originally built to control the valley around it. This was before the tribes made peace, mind you. For ancient unicorns, mountain castles were for pleasure and good company, and lowland castles were for ruling over earth ponies.”
Sweetie’s eyes went wide at that revelation. “So... it’s like the story said? Was this castle around when the Windigos were freezing everything?”
At Blueblood’s nod, Sweetie had to suppress a squeal of scholarly-glee. She gazed upon the stonework, which reminded her more than a bit of the castle in the Everfree. Blueblood was right; the whole structure almost hummed with ancient history. It was such a shame to be there for a a few, select documents only. She could spend days here! Then again, she had forever as it was, so perhaps she’d be able to squeeze in a few weeks of study here and there.
The Blueblood family records were kept in a large vault below ground. Sweetie didn’t get much in the way of details from the Prince when she asked what the rest of the tower Keep held. She had the sneaking suspicion that there were other vaults here, both above and further below. Hallways didn’t have that many huge, locked portcullises to protect stores of sugar and salt.
Blueblood soon lead them both to a bright room with glass walls, lit by blue light. Rather than act as mirrors, the crystals lining the walls were only tile-sized and carefully angled, using and distorting the light to form a hundred slightly different shades of blue. The domed roof overhead was supported by four pillars that ended in statues, all unicorns, their visages stern and their hooves raised as if to hold up heavens painted on the inside of the dome. The stars set in the textured and blue-black sky glittered like the rarest of diamonds.
Looking up in awe, Sweetie could feel her heartbeat skip. All this had been built when unicorns laid claim to Equestria, and all within. This was the work of her own grandmothers and grandfathers who had come over in the migration. There were no hearts or lively curls here. The megalithic unicorn statues atop the pillars were sharp and imposing, their faces stern and humourless.
“The family records of the Bluebloods are kept here,” her host explained, gesturing towards rows of books kept behind thick, sliding panes of glass. “Our accomplishments and failures... our secrets and the names and deeds of our enemies. All recorded for posterity. Some Bluebloods have a dozen volumes written about them. And... I think there may be a few stray pages about me here, too, somewhere.
“We want the twenty third,” he reminded her, though she didn’t need reminding. He seemed to need to say it more than she needed to hear it. “How convenient that we are all neatly sorted by number, like blocks of wood at a construction site. It makes organization so easy! I suspect we just need to find the ‘B’ section, and then ‘23.’ Now, B, where are the Bs?”
Sweetie gazed at all the history contained in the vaults and gulped. So. Much. Knowledge.
“How much do you have here?” she had to ask.
“Knowledge is power, and secrets are as potent as any spell,” Blueblood told her, reciting something he had no doubt been told at her age and younger. “No family in Equestria guards more of either than the Bluebloods.”
“I can see how you can use anything here to bring down a whole noble house...” Sweetie muttered, trying to wrench her mind off the possibilities, and back to the matter at hoof. Yet, for some reason, her mind conjured up a stray scrap of memory from when Blueblood had first flown her to meet Cadance. One that had stuck with her through the loops.
‘It is a great honor to be invested and raised as a Princess of Equestria. One does not refuse such an honor. In the past, my family made sure no pony refused it.’
Were there records here of that, too?
It only took a moment to find the section devoted to Blueblood the Twenty Third.
“A Blue Belle, as I said,” he said while opening the glass case that was creatively labeled with a black “23” on the front. “We are all technically Bluebloods, but the ladies also get the feminine title Blue Belle for use in casual company.”
Inside were not just books, but an assortment of writings, sketches, diagrams and personal effects... Sweetie unrolled a tapestry with her magic, more than three hundred years old and sneezed as her actions unsettled a thin layer of dust. What she uncovered was a map of Equestria, smaller than the one she recognized from Cheerilee’s classroom and Twilight’s globe. Dragons flew over parts of the map, and eels churned the seas of the east, toothy maws open to devour ships. The griffin territories were marked by scrawled and flecking streaks of paint: lines and x’s and arrows.
“I do believe the griffins had another civil war around the time of the twenty third,” Blueblood recalled, magically sorting through a leather pouch of scrolls. He glanced down at Sweetie Belle and the tapestry. “They may have used that to plan out Equestria’s intervention.
“Auntie is quite proud of our thousand years of peace,” he continued, chuckling. “But our neighbors have a more sordid history. I don’t think the griffins would even want a thousand years of peace, were it offered to them.”
“They like fighting that much?” Sweetie asked, curiously. “The only griffon I remember seeing was a friend of Rainbow Dash, who visited Ponyville, but I didn’t meet her personally.”
“Griffins are... unusual,” Blueblood tried to explain, but it clearly baffled him to a degree just as it did her. “Their politics tribal, but instead of there being three or four actual ethnic tribes, they are divided by passions and ideologies. Posturing is central to how they think and act, and compromises are seen as signs of weakness. They’re a... frustrating... group if I do say so myself. Who knows what set them off back then?
“Ah ha!” he exclaimed, and floated down a black wooden case with thick locks built into metal hinges. It would have been a trial to unlock, except a thick brass key was also kept in storage. Four locks were undone and the case opened, revealing sheets of...
“Metal?” Sweetie Belle asked, surprised.
“Apparently, the twenty third had a mind to copy her most valuable documents in a less perishable form,” Blueblood said, his horn glowing more brightly as four sheets of thinly pressed metal filled the air over Sweetie’s head. “So she had them cut into steel and the original papers burned. Bear in mind that steel was as both rare and expensive as silver back then.”
“That... is a little extreme,” Sweetie muttered.
“Lo and behold, her little palace maze got the same treatment as her war documents,” he said, sifting through some papers as he set the four metal sheets down on the ground so Sweetie could examine them herself. “That is something I most certainly did not know.”
Sweetie Belle sighed and summoned her notebook, which she placed next to some scrolls somepony had left behind on an opposite shelf - detailing and offering analysis of the exploits of one Blueblood the 13th - and opened it, preparing to take notes. It took her a moment to realize that there was something off.
She frowned at the map.
“That doesn’t look right,” she mumbled, looking carefully at the designs on the metal sheets. Instead of paint, they were etched, and filled with seams of tin or bronze or other metals to make lines and letters. She poured over them. The design was similar, but... looking at it here, in contrast to the paper map Blueblood had provided her, or even worse, being there in the flesh reminded her more of a set of instructions, rather than a diagram of the grounds alone.
Slowly, things began to click in her mind. She rolled out her own map of the maze and compared it. With wide eyes, she followed the position of certain static decorations that had remained in the same place, years and centuries after first being built. Slowly, she traced with her hoof invisible lines connecting one to another, each reminding her of something that had been staring at her in the face, but never realized.
In her mind, the pillars were replaced by gems, the metal sheet by a soft velvety cover, the invisible lines suddenly etched onto its surface. Each line, forming part of a web - a route for magic to converge, all of it focused on one single point, where the energies reached their objective and completed the cycle, subtly but inexhaustibly feeding energy in. She knew this magic, but had never imagined it on such a scale.
“Blueblood,” Sweetie Belle said, her voice hushed as all the pieces came together. “This... this entire maze... it’s a spell matrix.”
o.0.∞.0.o End Part 2 o.0.∞.0.o